think tank

One of this job's perks is telling it like it is

One of my true joys in life is that I get to write "the real words." When our readers peruse Hollywood Reporter articles about the raging argument over "indecent speech," there's no tip-toeing around the real words in this newspaper. You say 'em, we print 'em, or we print something close.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin apparently can't stand it when people do that. Martin, or one of his henchmen/women, has been pretty fond of saying: "Hollywood continues to argue that they should be able to say the F-word on television whenever they want."

Sometimes I wonder what Martin is talking about. The networks are based in New York. Hollywood is on the opposite coast, and the FCC doesn't have much power over it. It's as if an entire continent doesn't exist. The FCC has power to regulate broadcast stations, but the commission can't tell a scriptwriter, producer or director what to do. It's pretty clear that Martin wants to vilify the entire entertainment industry, over which he has little control, and link that to the broadcasters, over which he does.

As I cover the legal battle over indecent speech, I like being able to write the words without having to clean them up. I think that it's actually good for the body politic to be able to read the real, actual words instead of having to fill in some stupid blanks or resort to euphemisms like "S-word."

What the hell is that? I don't scream "S-WORD!!" when I hit my thumb with a hammer. I scream … Well, you get the point.

Verisimilitude is important on TV. Viewers have to be able to suspend their sense of disbelief or it just doesn't work. The commission ruled that a few "fucks" and "shits" in "Saving Private Ryan" were allowable so we could get some idea of what it felt like back then.

At the same time the commission said it's OK to have the language in "Ryan," it said that the same language was inappropriate to use in Martin Scorsese's PBS documentary "The Blues." What makes the difference? Is it because one film is a documentary? If so, why would the FCC say it was OK to use the same language in a documentary about Sept. 11?

What about Patton? We can see Tom Hanks as Capt. Miller, but can we see George C. Scott as Gen. Patton?

Do we really want five unelected people, no matter how intelligent or politically astute they may be, making these decisions? Is a government official's call better than one made by a corporate executive?

While Martin seems to envision the entertainment industry as some out-of-control monster dying to write in a few "fucks" and "shits," a pair of former FCC officials think the commission is becoming the monster.

Former commissioner Glen Robinson — who voted on the original indecency regulations in the action taken when a Pacifica station aired George Carlin's bit "Filthy Words" — and Henry Geller, a former FCC general counsel, told the court that it's the commission that has lost self-control.

"In pursuit of an otherwise laudable policy of protecting children against exposure to extremely offensive language, the commission has embarked on an enforcement program that has all the earmarks of a Victorian morals crusade," they wrote.

No one really expects the courts to throw the FCC's indecency rules out altogether. In the court papers filed in the past month, the most Fox and CBS are asking for is a return to the commission's old policy, the one before Bono said "really fucking brilliant" at the Golden Globe Awards in 2003. The one where a slip of the tongue won't cause a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where context really matters. Like my thumb and its proximity to the hammer.