Kevin Martin, and the Peril of Fixed Ideas

Like the man who appointed him to the position, today marks FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s last day on the job. That both he and President Bush are leaving office to the relief of most, and the glee of many, is partly explained by a trait they share: Both have an unfortunate capacity to project their personal views ahead, and at the expense, of sound public policy.

In Bush’s case the most obvious example is the Iraqi adventure; in Martin’s it has been his pursuit of content controls on TV programming. This is not to say there weren’t other things on their agenda—some of which even went right—just that it is these issues for which they will be  remembered most critically.

Looking back on it, two events bookend The Media Institute’s relationship with Kevin Martin. The first was a speech he gave at our annual awards banquet in October of 2003, at a time when he was but a Commissioner at the FCC; the second was a private meeting I had with him in May of 2005, not long after he became Chairman.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can see in Martin’s banquet speech an outline of  where his personal views might later take him. Indeed, I knew even before the speech that he had a strong aversion to indecent programming. But even so I assumed that his clear understanding of the benefits of free speech (much of which he attested to in his remarks), and his knowledge of the constitutional limitations, would overcome his personal views.

To be fair, Martin would deny, and indeed has denied, that his pursuit of indecent TV programming was anything more than an obligation on his part; that Congress has passed laws and he was simply enforcing them.

That argument, though, puts me in mind of a tale concerning the former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Seems that, so the story goes, Wilson went round to Buckingham Palace following his Labour Party’s defeat in 1970, there to tender his resignation to the Queen, only to find that she had gone for the day to the races at Ascot. This was said by many to be very odd because the Queen was known to be a lady who always put duty before pleasure. Perhaps though, said one, the Queen saw Ascot as her duty and Wilson’s resignation as her pleasure.

However he saw his duties, Kevin Martin’s crackdown on TV content was definitely his pleasure.

In November of 2004, The Media Institute published an essay written by Arizona State University professor Laurence Winer. Titled “Soul of the Censor: The FCC Attacks Television Violence,” the essay was a brilliant, if provocative, explication of the constitutional infirmities, and other problems, with the FCC’s crackdown on violent and indecent TV programming.

Six months later, and with growing concern about the direction in which he seemed headed, I wandered over to the FCC for a meeting with Martin, who just two months earlier had been named Chairman. My hope for the meeting was that I might be able to persuade him to make a course correction re “fleeting expletives,” and all the rest of it, on the argument that the Commission was putting the cart before the horse; that, as Professor Winer had observed, not only was there no evidence in the record of harm from exposure to indecent TV, the nature of the alleged harm itself wasn’t even explained.

Martin was having none of it, though, and showed a particular displeasure with Winer’s essay. And so, though I didn’t realize it at the time, what had been a collegial relationship with him, and with Michael Powell before him, turned adversarial. Thereafter, he rarely attended Media Institute functions, and largely stopped communicating with us.

But he didn’t stop, or even slow down, his campaign to “clean up” the airwaves. Instead, he turned his attention to cable TV, and to his “a la carte” proposal for cable pricing, a mission that, given its length and depth, took on almost comical proportions, with some observers likening it to Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick.

Martin argued that the motive behind his a la carte advocacy was to give consumers a break in the rising cost of cable TV service, but virtually nobody was buying it. Instead, it looked to most people as just another attempt to supplant ‘indecent” with “family friendly” programming. As Fortune’s Mark Gunther put it, “So what’s going on here? Politics, as usual.”

In the end, the great irony in Martin’s a la carte campaign–and indeed in all of his efforts to combat what he deems offensive or harmful TV programming–is that owing to the Internet and its effects, the marketplace by itself is moving toward program disaggregation and greater consumer choice, a development one might think a Republican appointee would have expected and preferred to government controls.
 

Obama and the Media, Part I

Writing in Broadcasting & Cable as chairman of the American Business Leadership Institute, the gifted Adonis Hoffman*       suggests that business has nothing to fear from an Obama Administration. 

Some early tests of Hoffman’s thesis will come in that corner of the nation’s economy that we care about most — the media and communications sector.  Three distinct issues come immediately to mind: consolidation, content regulation, and net neutrality.

Unless you’ve been in a coma, or trapped inside Free Press (which is pretty much the same thing), you’re aware of the pit into which much of the print and broadcast media are falling.  You also know that the proximate cause of their problems is the Internet, and the damage it has done to publishers’ and broadcasters’ business plans.

For all of this, you’re also aware of one other thing: that however much professional journalists and entertainers may disappoint, they are an essential part of any well-functioning democracy.

So given all of this, why would anyone want to deny broadcasters and publishers such business opportunities as may obtain these days through consolidation?  It’s not, after all, as though we’re talking about marrying companies that are triumphant and unstoppable.  Just the opposite.  In many smaller communities especially, we‘re talking about companies that are on the cusp of oblivion.  And while it’s hard to make the case that inter- or intra-industry consolidation comprises a solution to the crisis facing broadcasters and publishers, neither is it easy to make the argument that it wouldn’t help on the margins.

In a recent interview, Kevin Martin, whose chairmanship of the FCC has been indelibly marked by his passion for content controls, is said to have made “no apologies for his indecency enforcement, saying it was for the sake of children.  He adds that food marketing and media violence are two other places he thinks the government may need to step in….”

And so much for anything and everything to do with personal responsibility, the First Amendment, and the quaint idea that the people who own businesses are in the best position to know how to run them.

Depending on how Obama and his appointees come down on this issue, future programming decisions may well be made not by people whose primary interest is in creativity or profits, but in politics — thereby opening the door to every special interest and single-issue fanatic with designs on TV, and through it, on you.

(Next in "Obama and the Media, Part II": Net neutrality.)
*Adonis Hoffman is a member of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.

Continue reading “Obama and the Media, Part I”

FCC on the Offensive

Say what you will about the FCC, but you have to admit they’re a scrappy bunch when it comes to pursuing their crackdown on broadcast “indecency.”  First they persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case they lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – the one about Cher and Nicole Ritchie uttering a couple of verboten words during Fox’s “Billboard Music Awards” shows.

Now the FCC crowd is asking the Supreme Court to hear yet another indecency case they lost – this one in the Third Circuit involving the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe incident during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

The Supreme Court hasn’t even ruled on the Fox case yet, and in fact heard oral argument only about a month ago (Nov. 4).  But the word on the street is that the justices seemed sympathetic to the FCC’s arguments in Fox – perhaps even sympathetic enough to rule in the agency’s favor.  Handicappers are predicting that a vote favoring the FCC would be slim (say 5 to 4) and decided on narrow procedural grounds, rather than reaching the constitutional issues.  IF the vote goes the FCC’s way at all, that is.  

The common wisdom, of course, is that predicting Supreme Court decisions based on oral argument is a fool’s errand.  So, an unreliable prediction that foresees such a tepid outcome would seem a double whammy, enough to give one pause.

But not the FCC.  They reportedly are buoyed by the oral argument in Fox to the point that they want to pile on with the Janet Jackson matter.  The Commission did, however, request that the High Court defer a decision on whether to hear the Third Circuit case until after the Court rules on the Second Circuit case.   

This begs the question of why the Commission petitioned the Court at this particular time at all.  (The Court is not likely to issue a ruling in Fox until next spring or summer.)  Maybe this is just the Commission’s way of warning broadcasters that the indecency watchdog is not about to roll over and play dead.  To this observer, however, it seems a transparent ploy that might well prove all bark and no bite.    

Sheer Lunacy: Taxing the Technologies of Freedom

Imagine that someone came up with an idea to solve the “problem” of information overload (a.k.a. “too much information”) by levying a tax on the technologies that have sparked our information explosion.  Making it too expensive for many people to blog or otherwise send and receive information through digital and Internet-based technologies would not only reduce a lot of superfluous, self-indulgent electronic clutter, but would reverse the fragmentation of opinion threatening our democracy, the theory would go.

Well, someone has come up with just such a scheme.  An environmental attorney named Dusty Horwitt published his incredibly outlandish idea in the Aug. 24 Outlook section of the Washington Post.  (“If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?”)  He proposes a “progressive energy tax” that would “make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread.”

Anyone who has the faintest sensibility about the free flow of information must find this notion not only preposterous, but repulsive.

Forget, for a minute, that such a scheme would be utterly unworkable.  (How, for instance, would the government tax the electricity going into your computer differently than the electricity keeping the beer in your refrigerator cold?)  And we’ll leave it to our economist friends like Harold Furchtgott-Roth to point out the fatal flaws from an economic standpoint.

From a First Amendment perspective, Mr. Horwitt’s proposal is simply horrendous.  Restricting the means of disseminating information is tantamount to restricting information itself.  And information is speech, almost all of which is protected from government interference by the First Amendment. 

It is freedom of speech, and the free flow of information, that distinguishes the United States from China, totalitarian regimes, and most third-world countries.  Restricting the availability of information is a totalitarian tactic that is the antithesis of democracy, not something undertaken in support of it, as Mr. Horwitt alleges. 

Under Mr. Horwitt’s scheme, who would decide how much information was enough? Perhaps we would need a Ministry of Information to make those decisions.  And if the quantity of information were regulated, would the regulation of content be far behind?

In an earlier age, maybe Mr. Horwitt would have favored a stiff tax on printing presses and newsprint.  It’s no coincidence that the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment, because taxing the means of producing speech was a form of government coercion they found utterly repugnant. 

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mr. Horwitt never mentions the First Amendment or acknowledges any constitutional concerns about his proposal.  I don’t see how his scheme could possibly pass constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s O’Brien test, for instance.  Taxing speech isn’t the same as taxing cigarettes or gasoline.

The technologies that Mr. Horwitt would like to tax into oblivion, or at least into submission, are the latest iteration of what Ithiel de Sola Pool famously called the “Technologies of Freedom.”  Give me my newspaper and my traditional radio and TV, but also give me the rollicking, raucous world of the blogosphere, satellite and Internet radio, hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels, and the incredible wealth of information available on the Web.  These are today’s “technologies of freedom” that make our democracy what it is. 

How could anyone be fearful of “too much information”?  Information is the lifeblood of democracy, and the more the better.  The idea of restricting speech by taxing the messenger is repulsive indeed.    

Conservatives and the Media

For maybe 50 years, self-described conservatives have been alienated from the dominant U.S. media — the Big Three TV networks, big-city newspapers, the national newsweeklies.  This alienation of a group that comprises as much as a third of the electorate has provided opportunities for such as talk radio companies, and the FOX News Channel, to pick up the pieces.

And even on the Internet conservatives are having success.  They may not have the political influence on the Republicans that the “netroots” have on the Democrats, but websites like the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics are highly influential and display a clearly discernible right-of-center profile.

With this kind of success — owing entirely to the marketplace and deregulation — one would think that conservatives would be very chary about doing anything that might invite government control over media content.  And perhaps some are, but the loudest voices belong to those whose actions and agenda invite precisely this.

Take, for instance, the empire created by L. Brent Bozell.  From entertainment programming to journalism, the House that Brent Built gives voice to a brand of conservative criticism that spans issues from “broadcast indecency” to “liberal media bias.”

And if this were all that they did, there would be no qualms here about the Bozell-founded Parents Television Council (PTC) or his Media Research Center.  Media criticism, after all, is itself free speech.  But it isn’t all that they do.  Through organized letter writing campaigns, position papers, and filings at the FCC, the PTC actively encourages both legislative and regulatory action against “broadcast indecency.”

That this position contradicts one of the central tenets of modern conservatism — the imperative of limited government — is something that Bozell himself has acknowledged to be a conservative critique of his organization.  Alas, inconsistency (some would call it hypocrisy) of this sort does not weigh so heavily on the gentleman as to cause him to reconsider.

Like the late Reed Irvine, another conservative media critic who came before him, Bozell apparently believes that government regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  In Irvine’s case, the classic example of this was his support of the Fairness Doctrine.  Irvine believed that, without the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives would be bereft of any influence over the liberal sensibilities of broadcast journalists.  Of course we now know that repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led directly to the dominance in talk radio not of liberals but of conservatives!

In demonstration of the tenacity of history, this same Fairness Doctrine may yet prove to be Brent Bozell’s undoing too.  This, because these days all the talk, endorsed by such as the Speaker of the House, is of the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine.  Through the Media Research Center, Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against any such plan, but because of the pro-regulation stance of his PTC there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.

Oh, he will, one assumes, be able to organize a letter writing campaign, but such campaigns don’t equate  with credibility in the same way, and for the same reason, that power doesn’t equate with integrity.

The FCC, Indecency, and the Rule of Law

Call it a victory for the rule of law.  And a victory for common sense.

On July 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the Federal Communications Commission’s fine against CBS televisions stations for airing the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident.

As you might remember, this was the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” involving Justin Timberlake that allegedly traumatized millions of children watching the Super Bowl halftime show.  Activist groups mobilized, Congress jumped in, and the FCC swiftly cracked down on “indecency” in an abrupt departure from its decades-long policy of restraint toward “fleeting” incidents.

However, the Third Circuit concluded that the FCC had reversed its policy in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious without adequate notice to broadcasters.  In doing so, the Commission had violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the court found.  In essence, the court told the FCC that it can’t do whatever it feels like doing in response to the winds of public opinion or the grandstanding of certain politicians.  

That’s the right decision.  Yet the ruling was greeted in many quarters with reactions ranging from keen disappointment to outrage, as if the indecency crackdown were an end that should be justified by any means.  As John Eggerton reported in Broadcasting & Cable, even the FCC chairman was “surprised” and “disappointed.”  In our judicial system, however, the rule of law trumps personal feelings and public opinion – even the “public opinion” of mass e-mail campaigns orchestrated by activist groups.

So far, the Second Circuit and now the Third Circuit have rebuked the FCC for its recent approach to indecency enforcement.  In response to the Third Circuit’s decision, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin noted “the importance of the Supreme Court’s consideration of our indecency rules this fall.”  He’s right about that – and we trust the Supreme Court will be the next judicial body to get it right.
 

Those “Outlaw” Television Networks?

George Carlin’s death on June 22 came only days before the 30th anniversary of what has become his legacy in Washington policy circles: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Pacifica decision.

That ruling centered on Carlin’s comedy bit "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" (commonly known as the “Seven Dirty Words” routine), and guided the FCC’s enforcement of so-called “indecent” broadcast content for the next 30 years.

The Parents Television Council took the opportunity of Pacifica’s anniversary July 3 to hammer the networks for daring to challenge the FCC’s indecency-enforcement regime.  “The broadcast medium remains uniquely pervasive," said PTC President Tim Winter.  “It’s time for the broadcast networks to obey the law instead of undermining it.”

The networks have indeed challenged a number of FCC indecency findings in recent years, reaching U.S. Courts of Appeal in the Second and Third circuits, and now the Supreme Court.

But the challenges have revolved, for the most part, around how the FCC defines and then goes about enforcing its indecency standards (now with a new emphasis on profanity as well) – rather than on the underlying law. 

The question has generally been whether the FCC’s interpretation of the law is valid, and whether the FCC is applying that interpretation in a way that is not arbitrary and capricious.  The networks have every right to challenge the FCC’s interpretation and actions, as they are presently doing.  That does not make the networks lawbreakers, as Mr. Winter disingenuously implies.