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Tom Shales

Michael Powell Exposed! The FCC Chairman Has No Clothes

By Tom Shales
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page N01

Oops. They got rid of the wrong Powell. The father unfortunately is going, but the son, even more unfortunately, remains behind.

Colin Powell, as most Americans know, has "resigned" his position as secretary of state, though few in the inner circle of the coldhearted Bush administration will likely be shedding tears at his departure. Staying in office, however, and capable of wreaking havoc in American broadcasting until 2007, is Colin's son Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and definitely not a force for good in America.

His father is stepping down as secretary of state, but Michael Powell could remain in power until 2007. (David Scull -- Bloomberg News)

_____FCC In The News_____
Viacom Settles Outstanding FCC Fines (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2004)
FCC Says A La Carte TV Would Cost More (The Washington Post, Nov 20, 2004)
Verizon and Sprint to Cut Fee For Transferring Cell Numbers (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 2004)
FCC News Archive

Pompous and imperious, an ideologue who believes unfailingly in his own philosophy of how TV and radio should work (the FCC also has domain over telephone and emerging broadband technologies), Powell ignores or condemns anyone who opposes him. Though FCC chairmen have labored mostly in obscurity, Powell has managed to make himself famous; he's the Torquemada of the insane campaign now being waged against "obscenity" on the airwaves.

There was according to legend a face that launched a thousand ships. This is about a nipple that inflamed a thousand nut cases. Janet Jackson's brief breast exposure during halftime of this year's Super Bowl has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, a wave of hypocritical hysteria with which Democrats as well as Republicans are only too happy to be associated, and a state of affairs that boils down to open season on the First Amendment, the bedrock of the Bill of Rights.

At no point did anyone, including Chairman Powell, positioned now like Attila at the head of the Huns, produce one single living creature -- man, woman, child, toddler, infant, newborn, late-term fetus, dog, cat, rooster, horse or parakeet -- who saw the briefly exposed nipple and was in any tangible way harmed by it. Like most of the halftime entertainment, it was tastelessly inappropriate, but the ensuing mass fuss is a farce that has made America an international laughingstock again.

Tired as the topic is, one must mention the nipple when recounting what might be called the Sins of Michael Powell, since it's a highlight of his bumpy, disgraceful tenure as FCC chairman. The furor it generated resulted not only in a $550,000 fine to be paid by CBS, which aired the Super Bowl (and is owned by Viacom, whose MTV produced the halftime show), but in more and more punishments meted out over more and more alleged infractions, many involving naughty words that had previously been uttered without incident (no cases of shock reported in trauma units, for instance, and no outbreaks of rioting in the streets).

One result is to make Howard Stern, however improbably, a national hero. After two decades on the radio doing material of a certain nature that every American was free to avoid, Stern found himself under all-out attack from the FCC, which started fining stations and station groups for carrying his program. The two met electronically recently when Stern got through to a San Francisco call-in show on which Powell was a guest and they exchanged insults.

In fairness to Powell, the commission's two Democratic members, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, have been among those pushing for not only fines but license revocations when stations violate the still-vague obscenity rules. They are idiots.

And the networks are hardly just angelic victims. In this increasingly hysterical climate, ABC was spectacularly stupid in beginning last Monday's NFL telecast with a raunchy scene set in a locker room and featuring a fully dressed player being seduced by a woman in a towel. She dropped the towel and jumped naked into his arms. Powell then jumped into the spotlight and by Wednesday was pontificating about the episode on CNBC: "I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud." ABC is a Disney-owned company.

Naturally, an FCC spokesman said complaints were pouring in. Complaints pour in now about everything. Any day now, somebody will complain that the Energizer bunny is naked. And yet for all this alleged public distress over naughtiness on the airwaves, the most popular new series of the year is also the raciest: "Desperate Housewives" on ABC.

The madness reached its appalling apotheosis on Veterans Day: Sixty-five of ABC's 220 owned or affiliated stations declined to air the universally praised Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan," about American heroes of World War II, because the verboten F-word is spoken several times, and the FCC now fines stations sometimes astronomical amounts if even a few people file complaints over what they have heard.

This means Spielberg's acclaimed Holocaust film, "Schindler's List," cannot be shown again on a broadcast network because it, too, contains unpleasant language and, of course, graphic violence. See, it's about the Nazis, and they tended to be a little pushy. But realism is no defense, artistic excellence is no defense, even a consensus that the program in question constitutes a public service is no defense. (By contractual agreement, Spielberg's films must be shown without deletions or alterations.)

In large measure, the usual suspects are in the driver's seat -- fanatical right-wing groups that include words like "family" or "decency" in their names and view increased permissiveness on TV as part of a left-wing plot to undermine moral values. They have mastered the art of making minor protests look like huge movements by manipulating the Internet (thousands of "protest" votes at the click of a mouse) or simply manning the mimeograph machine. People can sign form letters even if they never saw the program in question.

Jeff Jarvis, TV Guide's last good TV critic and now prominent in the blogger universe, uncovered a stupefying example of how the process works and how unfair the FCC's actions are. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the 159 complaints supposedly received at the FCC because of an April 2003 Fox special, "Married by America." Now 159 seems like an insignificant enough number, but when Jarvis checked further into the case, he found that most of the letters were identical, produced by an "automated complaint factory," and that the number of authentic, actual, original letters of complaint was not 159 but . . . three. Yes, three.

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