The Obscenity Blackout

When the late Playboy centerfold and tabloid-media celebrity Anna Nicole Smith graced the white marble steps of the Supreme Court in 2006, the network news operations couldn’t get enough of the story. The blonde floozy had married a fabulously wealthy Texas oilman who happened to be 62 years her senior, and now she wanted to collect his estate. It was a serious legal challenge, and a salacious gossip story, and the networks covered it religiously.

But when a Supreme Court decision affects the networks directly, and adversely, there’s no coverage.

The Supreme Court ruled on the case of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox all suing the federal government for the right to drop F-bombs and S-bombs on young children. The Second Circuit had agreed with the networks that regulation of “fleeting” expletives was “arbitrary and capricious.” There was great interest then. Both ABC and CBS put on full stories to discuss the issues. But last week, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court. I bet you didn’t know that, and if you didn’t, it’s because the networks didn’t report it.

The verdict emerged once in casual conversation on NBC’s “Today,” in the fourth hour hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. Actor Hugh Jackman described the latest character he was playing as a “prick.” Jackman’s subsequent can-I-say-that routine was an exercise in light comedy, as they all laughed about the Supreme Court decision that no one explained.

The Fox News Channel, with 24 hours of news, offered only a tiny brief from Bret Baier on “Special Report” on the verdict: “The Supreme Court today ruled 5-4 in favor of a government policy that threatens broadcasters with fines if even a single curse is uttered on live television. But the justices sent the FCC guideline back to an appeals court to determine whether it violates the First Amendment.” To his credit, Baier disclosed his own company’s crusade for televised indecency: “The challenge to the rule was mounted by Fox Television, which is a corporate partner of Fox News.”

The media could have entertained viewers with snippets of the court’s opinion, especially the dissenters. They are eye-openers.

Justice Stephen Breyer bizarrely insisted that the airing of F-bombs is an “important governmental objective.” Breyer wrote regulatory agencies are independent “to secure important governmental objectives, such as the constitutionally related objective of maintaining broadcast regulation that does not bend too readily before the political winds.”

Breyer might protest that he’s supporting a broad First Amendment right. But he’s one of those liberal oddballs who think the F-bomb is an “important government objective,” but freedom of speech on TV political commercials is not. He favored suppression of free speech when the McCain-Feingold speech restrictions were on the docket.

Justice Stevens sounded just like the network lobbyists when he lamely claimed that saying F-bombs as an exclamation is not a reference to sex. “As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows, it would be absurd to argue the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent.” But if it isn’t an indecent word, why did Justice Stewart feel compelled to label it merely a “four-letter word”?

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent was just aggressively un-factual: “the unscripted fleeting expletives at issue here are neither deliberate nor relentlessly repetitive.” Two of the expletives at issue were uttered by Nicole Richie on a Fox-aired Billboard Awards show as a promotion of Richie’s and Paris Hilton’s new farm-based Fox “reality” show. As award presenters, Hilton warned Richie, “This is a live show. Watch the bad language.” Nicole added, “Why do they even call it ‘The Simple Life’? Have you ever tried to get cow s–t out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f—ing simple.”

The exchange reeked of scripting. In fact, Richie later confessed there was a script, and she tweaked it to make herself sound less ditzy. (Mission not accomplished.) For Justice Ginsburg to claim this wasn’t “deliberate” is simply untrue. As to the “repetitive” argument, we are to believe that “cow s–t” and “f—ing” is acceptable if uttered once?

It also would have been nice for newscasters to pass along Justice Scalia’s cogent brief against the shameless networks: “To predict that complete immunity for fleeting expletives, ardently desired by broadcasters, will lead to a substantial increase in fleeting expletives seems to us an exercise in logic rather than clairvoyance.” He said they seek “a standardless regime of unbridled discretion.”

That is what the networks want. If ever they achieve their goals, they’ll celebrate to the high heavens and call it news. But when they lose, as they did last week, mum’s the word.


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