Everybody loves to blame the media for the woes of the world. Is your candidate losing? Blame the media. Is the war in Iraq not going the way you want? Blame the media. Is the economy slowing down and heading into recession? Blame the media.
Indeed, one of the entertaining things about being a media policy analyst is that you get to hear various media critics say the most outlandish things about the role of media in our society. And thatâ€™s not just the case for news; itâ€™s even truer for culture and entertainment, of course. Thereâ€™s never been a shortage of self-appointed culture cops in our society who want to tell us that they--or at least some benevolent ruling class acting on their behalf--are in the best position to dictate standards of decency and quality entertainment. And sometimes the antics of such critics are as entertaining as they are outrageous.
Take this recent press released by Concerned Women for America entitled, â€œOh, Be Careful Little Eyes What You See: The Influx of Broadcast Indecency.â€ So desperate are they to expand the scope of government regulation over media that theyâ€™ve now resorted to equating broadcasters to murderers and thieves: â€œIf we allow the networks to set the standards of public decency, isn't that like allowing the criminal to decide what's illegal?â€
Seems a bit over-the-top to me, but letâ€™s try to answer that question by answering another question CWA sets forth in their press release: â€œWho decides the standards by which we protect our children and ourselves from indecent broadcasts over the public airwaves?â€
That is an excellent question, and one that I have devoted much of my lifeâ€™s work to answering. What CWA is implying in that question is that if the government does not set â€œstandardsâ€ to protect society from â€œindecent broadcasts,â€ then society will essentially descend into a nihilistic moral abyss. Only by empowering regulators to police â€œthe public airwavesâ€ can we restore and defend moral order.
This assertion is incorrect on multiple counts. I could focus on the constitutional challenges associated with defining â€œindecentâ€ and â€œmoralâ€ content in a pluralistic society such as ours. Or I could focus on the practical considerations of regulating broadcasters uniquely in our multi-media, multi-platform world. But I would rather focus on that â€œWho Decides?â€ question set forth by CWA in their essay, because thatâ€™s what is really at the center of all these debates. And hereâ€™s the way I counter that logic in my book on â€œParental Controls & Online Child Protectionâ€:
Decisions about acceptable media content are extraordinarily personal; no two people or families will have the same set of values, especially in a nation as diverse as ours. Consequently, it would be optimal if public policy decisions in this field took into account the extraordinary diversity of citizen and household tastes and left the ultimate decision about acceptable content to them. Thatâ€™s especially the case in light of the fact that most U.S. households are made up entirely of adults. According to the Census Bureau, only one-third of U.S. households include children under the age of 18. The ideal state of affairs, therefore, would be a nation of fully empowered parents who have the ability to perfectly tailor their familyâ€™s media consumption habits to their specific values and preferences. That would include the ability to not only block objectionable materials, but also to more easily find content they feel is appropriate for their families.
Is that ideal state of affairs possible? I believe we are getting closer every day. There has never been a time in our nationâ€™s history when parents have had more tools and methods at their disposal to help them decide what constitutes acceptable media content in their homes and in the lives of their children. These new tools and rating systems are providing parents with ample fair warning about media content and simultaneously making it easier for them to shield their children from objectionable material. Importantly, this is being accomplished without negatively affecting the adult viewing audience.
That is not to say that media doesnâ€™t continue to play a major role in our society and culture--for both good and bad. But parents have been significantly empowered with tools, controls, strategies and information, that can help them devise and then enforce a media plan, or â€œhousehold standard,â€ for their families that is in line with their own values.
And so we return to the question CWA posed in their recent press release: â€œWho decides the standards by which we protect our children and ourselves from indecent broadcasts over the public airwaves?â€ The answer: Parents. Parents should shape the development of their children and their values. Private censorship is superior to public censorship in every way since it lets each family dictate for itself what is in their best interest. Public censorship, by contrast, expects regulators to dictate for all families what is best for them by imposing a single arbitrary standard on the entire nation. Household choice and parental empowerment represent the better approach for a free society.