Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Cable Disconnect

Michael Scherer has a piece in Salon.com (subscription/Day pass required) about the latest attempt to control the content of television.

Under the current rules, material is indecent if it is “offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.” But standards vary widely from community to community, household to household. Family Research Council legal director Patrick A. Trueman said he recently traveled to a Marriott Hotel in Houston, where he said three separate cable stations — not pay-per-view stations — were showing “hardcore pornography,” which he described as “sex acts.” He demanded that the hotel staff come disable the channels. The staff told him one of the stations was Showtime. “I don’t have cable just for this reason,” said Trueman, who previously worked on obscenity cases in the Justice Department. “If I had cable, I would not want my children viewing that.”

If the activists have their way, Trueman’s children will not be the only Americans barred from watching sex — explicit or implied — on television. For now, they have the political winds at their backs, and a sympathetic captain at the helm of the FCC. Before taking his current job, [FCC Chairman Kevin] Martin served as a lawyer for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and later as a White House aide. His wife, Catherine J. Martin, worked for Vice President Cheney until recently, when she took another job in the White House to work for the president on policy and planning issues.

There is little doubt that Martin knows the political stakes of the coming fight. In 2003, he shared his concerns over indecency in a letter to the Parents Television Council, a group that has called for a boycott of shows like the WB’s “Everwood” because it features adults who encourage teenage characters to use birth control and, in one case, have an abortion. “Certainly broadcasters and cable operators have significant First Amendment rights, but these rights are not without boundaries,” Martin wrote to the group. “They are limited by law. They also should be limited by good taste.”

Okay, so now these paragons of virtue, not to mention the advocates of more freedom and less government, want to tell you what you can watch on cable?

I have several problems with this. First, cable TV is not like over-the-air TV. You have to subscribe to it, and you pay extra for the channels with the naughty bits. Second, most if not all cable companies provide password protection on their systems that can block out unwanted channels (for example, I have all the Jesus-shouter channels like EWTN and Trinity blocked on mine — talk about cable porn); it’s not the fault of the cable companies that in most cases the only people in the house who have the talent to program the cable box are the kids. Third, all TV sets built since the early 1990’s have the V-chip installed so that even if you don’t have cable TV, you can block out programs with ratings over whatever level you choose; again, it’s the parents’ responsibility to set the level, not the broadcaster or the government. Fourth, the most potent weapon against unwanted channels is something that has been available since the first TV set was introduced: it’s called the OFF switch.

I also find it a little more than ironic that the party that preaches personal responsibility and strict interpretation of the Constitution wants to both delegate the role of parental control to the FCC and skate around the First Amendment in the process. Parents who have delegated a portion of their child-rearing to a household appliance have a far bigger problem than what’s on cable, and television is no more responsible for the alleged breakdown in family values than Frigidaire is for childhood obesity. As for the freedom of speech issue, if these advocates of decency applied the same strict-constructionist views that they have about the Second Amendment to the First, there would be no laws regulating child pornography or any other restriction on speech or publication for fear of what the government might do next — “I’ll give up my thesaurus when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

The right wing has always sought to raise our standards. Why not? They’re especially good at doubling them.