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Fox, Foul Language and the First Amendment



“[We will] fight to the end for our ability to put occasionally controversial, offensive, and even tasteless content on the air.” – News Corp. President Peter Chernin (Broadcasting & Cable, October 21, 2008)


In an unparalleled demonstration of mutual back-patting, on October 21st Peter Chernin was given the Media Institute’s so-called “Freedom of Speech” award. Chernin is President and Chief Operating Officer of News Corp., the umbrella company which owns and controls the Fox and MyNetworkTV broadcast networks; FX, and many other cable channels; 20th Century Fox film studios; MySpace; the Wall Street Journal and New York Post newspapers; HarperCollins publishing company, and literally dozens of other media networks and properties.  (The Media Institute, which gave Chernin the award, has a Board of Trustees composed almost entirely of executives from entertainment and media corporations.)


As reported by Broadcasting & Cable, in accepting the award Chernin took the opportunity to denounce the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), stating that the regulation of indecent and obscene entertainment programming on broadcast TV will somehow automatically lead to the overthrow of the democratic process in American politics.


Chernin’s posturing and irrational leaps of logic were met with wild approbation by his fellow media bigwigs. However, the regulation of political speech is not what is at issue. In fact, what Chernin and his media cronies truly oppose are any limits whatsoever on indecent broadcast TV content. Any amount of violence, any and all profanity, any and every kind or quantity of graphic sex, they feel, ought to be acceptable – and legal. This was made manifest back on August 1st, when ABC, CBS and NBC filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court to defend Fox’s claim that airing the “F-word” and “S-word” during two Fox awards show broadcasts was not indecent and should not be fined.


With the Supreme Court scheduled on November 4th to review a lower court’s ruling that the use of the ”F-word” is merely a “fleeting profanity” and that the networks should not be fined for airing such language, the broadcast networks are currently engaged in an all-out media blitzkrieg – doing everything possible to ensure that their supposed “right” to blare offensive programming over the publicly-owned airwaves and dump it into millions of American homes meets with no opposition.    


In his speech, Chernin claimed that a court victory by Fox – which would allow any kind of language on TV, in any amount and at any time of day – would be “an affirmation of the First Amendment.” He also claimed that if the Supreme Court does find against Fox, the result will be that programming that “accurately reflects our society will be compromised.”


Clearly, Peter Chernin has an extremely high opinion of the programming that his networks currently air. In such a context, it is fair to ask: if Fox is demanding the “right” to air anything it wants, any time it wants, what are the contributions the network currently makes to American culture and civil discourse?


As an answer, consider recent episodes of two of Fox’s most heavily promoted programs, shows which Fox uses to headline its Sunday-night lineup: Family Guy and American Dad.


Here are a few examples of the kind of programming Peter Chernin apparently thinks “accurately reflects our society”:


On the October 19th episode of American Dad (shown at 9:30 p.m. ET), CIA spy Stan is appointed second-in-command by his boss Bullock, who insists that Stan help him find a sexual partner after his wife is kidnapped by terrorists. The viewer is shown Stan and Bullock in a series of sexually-oriented settings as Bullock frantically seeks a lover. In a bar, Bullock tells Stan: 


BULLOCK:  “Now, keep your eyes out for the rarest of birds: the plump

Asian skank.”


STAN:  “Unfortunately, everyone here is tall and gorgeous.”


BULLOCK:  “True.  I guess I'll have to settle for some tight white meat.” 


Bullock turns to the woman next to him.


BULLOCK:  “Excuse me, are you from Tennessee?  ‘Cuz you're the only ten I see.  Other than this one.”


Bullock pulls a ten-dollar bill out of his pocket.


BULLOCK: “Which is yours to earn!”


The scene shifts to a “Goth” bar. Stan and Bullock are shown in grotesque makeup and vampire-style costumes. A bustier-clad woman leads a man by a chain attached to a dog collar around his neck. Behind them, a man kisses a woman, as she straddles him and rubs her leg against his rear. Bullock laments his loss of his wife:


BULLOCK: “I can only imagine the monstrous things those Sunni insurgents are doing to my poor, sweet Miriam!”


After skipping through other settings – including Bullock and Stan playing “Spin the Bottle” – the scene ends up at a party for "Furries" – a fetish group for those who are sexually aroused by dressing as animals. A person dressed as a squirrel waggles his/her/its rear and tail at Bullock, who refuses the advance. The “squirrel” is then mounted from behind by someone dressed as a car.


“SQUIRREL”: “Ohhh yeah! I’m a squirrel and that feels GREAT!”


Later in the episode, Stan returns to his own wife, Francine, who smacks Stan across the face with a vase. Another woman is shown lying in their bed.


FRANCINE:  “This was supposed to be OUR romantic weekend!  How can you bring her here?”


STAN: “I was hoping for a three-way?” 


FRANCINE:  “With that?  We’ve talked about this.  Did you even try to contact Scarlett Johansson?”


But sexual fetishes and threesomes are not the only way that Fox’s programming supposedly “accurately reflects our society.” The same evening’s episode of Family Guy, airing at 9:00 p.m. ET – only 8:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones – indulged in equal-opportunity bigotry against both Jews and Catholics with a story set in Nazi Germany. Mort Goldman, a grossly stereotyped Jewish caricature, accidentally steps into a time machine and finds himself in 1939 Poland during the Nazi invasion. Talking dog Brian and sex-crazed Baby Stewie attempt to bring him back to the present.


Hiding from the Nazis, the whining, nasal-voiced Mort has disguised himself as a priest. He attempts to perform the last rites on a wounded soldier, but is confronted by a Nazi officer:


NAZI:  “Are you sure you are a real priest?”


STEWIE:  “Yeah, yeah, I can vouch for him.  He's real.  He's molested me

many, many times!”


An actual Catholic priest arrives on the scene.


PRIEST:  “Sorry I'm late.  I was busy doing...um...innocent,

non-molesty things.”


Ultimately, Adolf Hitler is about to order his soldiers to execute Mort, Brian and Stewie; but the Nazi dictator offers them their freedom if they sing a musical number. Stewie and Brian break into song, but Mort angrily demands:


MORT:  “Dammit, will you two just get in the (bleeped f******) time machine?”


(Of course, if Fox gets its way, “f******” – and every other profanity -- will never be bleeped again.)


In America today, privately-owned television networks are graciously granted the use of the publicly-owned airwaves. Unlike many other nations, in the United States the government does not monopolize control of the airwaves -- nor does it require the networks to pay for their use of same. The broadcast networks are allowed exclusive use of a public utility, for free, and use it to make billions of dollars a year in profit.  All the American people have ever asked in return is that the networks use the airwaves “in the public interest.” But now, the networks arrogantly claim that their alleged “right” to spew profanity, graphic sex and heinous violence trumps the best interests of America’s children -- and the desires of the American people. 


The position held by Peter Chernin and his media cronies is that the U.S. government, following mandates from a Congress elected by the American people, should not enforce the common-sense standards of decency that the overwhelming majority of Americans want. That the overwhelming majority of Americans do want such common-sense standards of decency in entertainment is undeniable; in 2006, the people’s elected representatives in the United States Congress passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, increasing FCC fines for indecent content on broadcast TV. The House of Representatives voted in favor of this measure by a 10-1 margin; the Senate passed it unanimously.


But, because such measures do not meet with the approval of Peter Chernin and his fellow multi-millionaire moguls who control broadcast, cable and satellite television, radio networks, film studios, music companies, newspapers, magazines, and book publishing firms, these bosses demand that the law be overturned. The desires of average Americans be damned, say the Overlords of Media; anything that would limit the entertainment industry’s “freedom” to make more obscene profits by deluging Americans with indecent and offensive content must not be allowed.


The entertainment industry often claims that the Parents Television Council is a tiny minority unrepresentative of most Americans, and that therefore our actions in advocating modest limits on indecency should be ignored. But considering that approximately 90% of everything Americans see, hear or read in the media is ultimately controlled by a few dozen network presidents and corporate chairmen, and possibly a few hundred more writers and producers, such a claim rings false. The PTC would willingly wager that our more than 1.3 million members are more in tune with the thoughts and feelings of average Americans than are a tiny clique of media bosses and their so-called “creative” lackeys.


Peter Chernin is of course correct when he states that the First Amendment was intended to assure free debate in the political process. But it is more than a little ridiculous to claim that restricting an entertainment program’s use of words like “motherf*****” to the hours after 10 p.m. will result in the obliteration of political liberty. Nor is it likely that the Framers of the Constitution – given their frequent assertions of the necessity for civil discourse and the importance of moral standards to the survival of the American republic – would have considered showing graphic portrayals of sexual fetishes to children as being the point of the First Amendment. Indeed, one can note that liberty and freedom of speech existed, and even flourished, in the two hundred years from the beginning of the United States up through the early 1970s – even though profanity and open depictions of sex were not prevalent in the media during that time.  


In his landmark dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision in Terminiello v. Chicago, Justice Robert H. Jackson famously stated that “if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact." (In light of the Family Guy episode mentioned above, it is interesting to note that the Terminiello case involved an anti-Semitic orator asserting his “First Amendment right” to spread his hate-filled message.)


Peter Chernin and his fellow media oligarchs claim that their “First Amendment rights” are in jeopardy. Given the use to which they are already putting their freedoms – and the public’s airwaves -- one may legitimately ask: if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Fox and allows it to air whatever offensive and harmful material it wishes, can America’s cultural suicide be far behind?


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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