Wednesday, June 06, 2007

More on the reticence of the New York Times

Sandy Levinson

As predicted the Times did indeed support the decision, in an editorial entitled "Expletive Policy Deleted." But the editorial also simply illustrated further the bind the Times has put itself in:

At the Billboard Music Awards in 2002, Cher had a salty rejoinder to critics who “have been telling me I’m on the way out every year.” At the same event in 2003, Nicole Richie had some earthy reflections on the difficulties of cleaning a Prada purse. It’s hard to believe these comments threaten the nation’s well-being, but the Federal Communications Commission found them indecent and profane. That threatened Fox Broadcasting, which televised the awards show, with major fines. This week, in a very welcome decision, a federal appeals court overturned the F.C.C.’s indecency policy.

For years, the F.C.C. had a reasonable, practical approach to live broadcasts. It recognized that coarse language sometimes slips in and if the offensive words were relatively isolated events, stations could carry them without fear of punishment. But in recent years, the F.C.C. decided to go after broadcasters that carry programs with even “fleeting expletives,” like Cher’s and Ms. Richie’s.

In a suit brought by a group of broadcasters, the New York-based United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found the commission’s policy to be arbitrary and capricious and the reasoning behind it to be weak and riddled with illogic. One of the commission’s rationales was that the expletives could not be separated from their “sexual or excretory” meaning. But the court noted that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have both used the words the commission objected to in public in ways that clearly did not have any “sexual or excretory” meaning.

The Second Circuit did not need to reach the constitutional issues in the case. But it rightly pointed out that the F.C.C.’s “fleeting expletives” policy also raises serious First Amendment concerns. That suggests that even if the commission tried to improve its reasoning, the policy would still be struck down. The F.C.C. should return to the more reasonable approach it once took to regulating live broadcasts and focus on more important issues than Cher’s and Ms. Richie’s colorful language.

So, enquiring minds might ask, what was Cher's "salty rejoinder"? It was, according to "A Socialite's Life," "People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year, right? So fuck em." Ms. Ritchie, on the other hand, offered this observation: "Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It's not so fucking simple."' Perhaps the Times should start offering website addresses, so that its readers who are not fully conversant with Cher's and Ms. Ritchie's public statements could find them--or perhaps it figures that its curious readers will do what I did, which was to spend 30 seconds on Google to find them.

Incidentally, I don't know that I find either Cher's or Ms. Richie's language particularly "colorful." I suspect that any Texan, for example (think of Dan Rather), could find far more "colorful" and "salty" ways to respond to negative evaluations, and Ms. Richie sounds like the vapid person she generally appears to be. So the editorial is odd in every respect: It both pays indirect respect to the FCC by its continued reticence in using the relevant language and gives more respect than is due to the linguistic talents of the celebrities. As a matter of fact, I'm not a particulr fan of our coarsened public language, whether it's used by presidents, celebreties, or anyone else. But I'm even less a fan of heavy-handed puritanical censorship and the inability of the Times to inform its readers of essential facts when it is precisely what is said that is at issue.


At least the Times didn't lie, as the Baltimore Sun once did, if I recall correctly. In 1991, Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer called the state's Eastern Shore a "shithouse" (because, I believe, it had not voted for him), and the Sun reported that he'd called it an "outhouse." (Wikipedia, oddly, states, "Gov. Schaefer compared Maryland's Eastern Shore to an outhouse (he referred to the region as a 'shithouse')") Somehow, the truth leaked out.

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