think tank

A five-minute vote? Now that's obscene

Talk about a quickie. You can always tell when the legislative fix is in. But the Senate Commerce Committee may well have set a land-speed record Thursday when it approved a bill that would give the FCC authority to fine broadcasters for a slip of the tongue. I wish I had timed it.

It took part of the world's greatest deliberative body less than five minutes to approve the bill. It was probably less than two, but I was too slow to put a clock on them. I mean, talk about your wham, bam, thank you, ma'am!

There's something a little unsettling about a vote that fast. It just isn't natural. No debate. No stem winding. It makes me think they were trying to make life hard for poor, haggard journalists such as myself. As if I wouldn't notice if they did it really fast.

No such luck. It may have been fast, but it was worth it to see Sen. David Vitter, R-La., vote for the Protecting Children From Indecent Programming Act. The bill reinstating the FCC's policy to fine broadcasters $325,000 for a "fleeting reference." And this from the guy who put the sin back in senator.

Vitter recently apologized for "a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible." Turns out that his telephone number was kept by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "D.C. Madam" who ran an "escort service."

Now that's just the kind of guy I want to protect my children from indecent programming. The 46-year-old, married father of four may have done enough "research" with the twentysomethings Palfrey hired to know what's truly indecent.

I don't know about Vitter, but I get a little nervous just looking at college girls. After all, Vitter and I are old enough to be their fathers.

Of course, I got nervous looking at college girls when I was a college boy.

But I digress. Digression is something that drives my editors crazy, and I want to apologize for that very serious writing sin for which I am, of course, completely responsible.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, the vote. If the senators on the Commerce Committee had taken more than five minutes to think about the bill, they may have realized their legislation is a solution in search of a problem. I keep racking my admittedly feeble brain trying to remember when I heard someone use one of the offensive words on TV during the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. period when broadcasters can safely use indecent speech.

I couldn't come up with one incident. Not on "Leno," "Letterman," "Conan," "Kimmel" or "Late Late" or any other show. As a matter of fact, the only time I can recall hearing these forbidden words was during a broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan," and the FCC has said it's OK for the soldiers in "Ryan" to cuss.

The censorship lobby has done a pretty good job convincing lawmakers that the suits at the networks are just dying to drop a bunch of F-bombs on their viewers. It's not that we should take the network execs at their word, but they could be a lot grosser in late-night right now without fearing a fine.

What's really troubling about the Commerce Committee's speed vote is that it's not the last speech control they will consider. The committee also plans to vote on government controls on violent speech. Those controls will apply to cable, satellite and broadcast TV.

I know one thing. When they do vote, I'll bring a stopwatch.