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Chris Jones

FCC Chairman Defends Indecency Crackdown

21 April 2004

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell said Tuesday in Las Vegas his organization's recent and ongoing crackdown on so-called indecent radio and television broadcasts is meant to protect the public and does not violate the free speech rights of broadcasters or American citizens.

Powell also vowed that similar restrictions would not be placed on controversial political or religious discussions, a step he said would be unconstitutional.

Free speech advocates have recently slammed the FCC for its newly toughened enforcement of broadcast decency standards, a change brought on by a widespread public outcry after singer Janet Jackson exposed her breast during the CBS television broadcast of this year's Super Bowl.

Despite criticism, Powell defended the FCC's recent actions and called upon broadcasters to exercise more responsibility regarding indecent programming or risk potential government involvement.

"I didn't do the Janet Jackson thing in prime-time television when one in five American children was watching; a broadcaster made a decision somewhere to do that," Powell said. "You can't on one hand say, `I'm going to try to be edgy and push the envelope,' admit that there is an envelope and then expect that you can go across it without possibly dealing with the consequences."

Powell told attendees at the National Association of Broadcasters convention his organization has for decades labored in varying degrees to regulate the nation's airwaves. He traced the recent rash of high-profile fines to a marked increase in public complaints.

In 2002, Powell said the FCC received only 14,000 complaints of decency violations. That total jumped to 250,000 last year, and through the first few weeks of 2004, the FCC has received nearly 540,000 complaints, he said.

Longtime ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, who moderated Powell's 45-minute discussion at the Las Vegas Hilton, asked if that meant the FCC was bowing to public pressure. Powell smiled and quickly quipped, "No. We're being responsive to public concerns."

But Powell was less prepared when he was later asked by an audience member to explain if those nearly 540,000 complaints came from a like number of individuals or were instead the result of mass mailings organized by a smaller segment of the public.

"You can drum up the numbers, if so motivated, on any issue," Powell said. "I find it a very difficult and increasing challenge ... to try to understand where does the public mind truly (lay)."

Powell was also hard pressed to explain why the FCC in one instance waited nearly three years to fine Infinity Broadcasting $27,500 for decency violations that were aired on Howard Stern's syndicated radio program in July 2001. This month, Clear Channel Entertainment was fined another $495,000 for airing other sexual comments made by Stern and cast in April 2003.

"We've waded through indecency cases for the past four years," Powell said, vaguely referencing differences in policy positions under the Clinton and Bush administrations. "What we're trying to do is be more swift about it ... to pursue these things in a much quicker time than before."

Recent numbers support the FCC's renewed focus. More than $1.6 million in fines for violations of decency standards have been issued this year through April 8; in all of last year, such fines totaled $439,500 and added up to just $99,400 in 2002.

Stern on his show Tuesday said he soon expects to be hit with added FCC fines totaling nearly $1.5 million, though the New York-based radio personality did not specify which comments would likely be targeted next by regulators.

Donaldson also asked Powell to clarify the FCC's position on decent versus indecent programming, saying some broadcast executives have asked the commission to legally define "where that line is."

Powell dismissed that argument as "a red herring" and added he does not believe it's in the public's best interests for government to spell out each and every standard.

"I'm not going to pretend that (decency standards) do not have a subjective quality," Powell said. "I cannot tell someone, `Here are five things and as long as you don't do these things you're OK and if you do do these things you're not.' "