I've written much about the potential "chilling effect" associated with over-zealous FCC regulation of speech. Some people doubt that the FCC's regulatory wrath is really so severe that media operators will censor important programs for fear of being fined afterward. But we know that that is exactly what happened with a 9/11 documentary last year when CBS decided to censor the remarks of firefighters under duress. Imagine that, firefighters were swearing as the disaster unfolded! But apparently we need to have history whitewashed for our benefit. Absurd.
And now it's happening again.
PBS just announced that Ken Burns's upcoming documentary about WWII ("The War") will now be censored during certain broadcasts. According to this article by Paul Fahri in today's Washington Post:
[public television] stations are concerned that four words of profanity in the 14 1/2 -hour documentary could subject them to hefty indecency fines from the Federal Communications Commission. Their worries have prompted Arlington-based PBS to take the unprecedented step of distributing two versions of "The War" for broadcast next month: Burns's original film and an FCC-friendly version from which the profanity has been removed.
The comments of these two PBS officials are particularly telling:
"It's the world we live in right now," said Joe Bruns, WETA's chief operating officer. "My own view is that with the landscape of a 14-hour film about World War II, and given the overall obscenity of war, four words are not particularly shocking -- especially given the fact that these are words used routinely at that time. But [nowadays], we have to exercise an abundance of caution."
"The core problem is, we don't really know what the FCC will do with a complaint because the guidelines aren't clear," PBS's chief content officer, John Boland, said yesterday.
That's because the FCC reserves the right to fine stations $325,000 if they broadcast something "indecent" between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. But the FCC refuses to tell anyone beforehand whether a particular use of a particular profanity is "indecent" or not. If you think that reeks of arbitrary, unaccountable government, you are right. And yet this is the law of the land.
And what is particularly absurd about this case is that this documentary will also contain gritty war footage and plenty of carnage. That's what happens in war, after all. But what our government seeks to protect us (or our children) from is a few dirty words that actual soldiers utter about the grim realities of war. Absolutely absurd.