Michael Powell's Welcome Reversal

Don't look now, but a barrel of common sense seems to have rolled through the front door of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is finally upset over the issue of filthy cursing on broadcast television.

At first, David Solomon, the head of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau rendered a decision allowing the "f-word" on the public airwaves if used as an adjective, but not a noun. After a public outcry so loud that Congress is preparing hearings on broadcasting indecency, FCC Chairman Michael Powell reversed course. He threw Solomon's decision out the window, and then declared publicly that fines for violating decency standards should be increased tenfold, from the insignificant $27,500 to more than a quarter million dollars.

"Some of these fines are peanuts," Powell said at the National Press Club. "They're peanuts because they haven't been touched in decades. They're just the cost of doing business to a lot of producers, and that has to change." That's a very welcome declaration, and it's good to see the general drift in the FCC toward common sense - that an F-word is an F-word is an F-word, and it doesn't matter whether it's a noun or an adjective, or whether it's uttered in the present tense or the past subjunctive. It's still unacceptable profanity for free, over-our-airwaves TV.

But the problem stubbornly remains with the broadcasters. NBC deliberately chose to air Bono riffing about his Golden Globe being "f-ing brilliant," and has never apologized. Moreover, it has called the tens of thousands of American parents who have protested to the FCC, and who represent tens of millions more, "logically bankrupt." Nice P.R. move, that.

NBC could have just issued a simple apology, and that would be that. Instead, it lobbied furiously that the F-word was but an "adverbial intensifier" that fit well within the fine legal points of not referring to a sexual or excretory act. That's a laughable argument against common sense. And it's an insult to any parent trying to teach a child the difference between right and wrong. Just imagine:

"Hey Mom, what a f--ing awful day I had at school!"

"WHAT did you say, Tommy?!"

"Mom, get with it. It was an adjective, not a noun."

Unfortunately, Mr. Powell chose not to recommend any fine whatsoever for NBC. If the FCC changes course only in public speeches, but in its policy still fails to enforce its existing standards - as mandated by law - then the troublemakers at NBC are quite right to question the FCC's seriousness. And why shouldn't they? In the entire history of the FCC, the agency hasn't fined a single TV station in the continental United States. And now NBC's allowed, even defended, the use of the F-word - and nothing. Where's the threat?

The American people and their representatives in Congress are going to have to step up the pressure on Powell and Co. and keep it high. The policy is there to be enforced, and now the will must be put behind it. All five FCC commissioners know that the Supreme Court decision in FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation said obscenities are not allowed between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on the broadcast networks. All they have to do is to have the fortitude to enforce that policy.

Even when Powell changed course, he still sounded tentative, as if he's being pushed from behind by Congress or by Republican strategists looking for small gestures to gratify socially conservative voters in an election year.

At the National Press Club, he was making sense by declaring "sometimes, what defines a culture or civilization is where it says 'no.'" That's absolutely right. He then added all the tentative dance steps: "I think in a free...First Amendment democracy, it's healthy that that debate never ends. It never ends what we accept as the important protections of speech and what are the limits of it. And I think that debate has not gone on in a while and it's probably healthy that we have it again."

That sounds nice, but it's wrong. The health of our culture does not rest on the debate, but on the winner of the debate. The health of our culture depends on the strength and the passion of the resistance to Hollywood's culture-rotting reflexes. Hollywood's a spoiled child. It needs a severe scolding. Give this industry an inch of the notion that free speech protects cursing over the public airwaves and they will take a mile. On the other hand, give this child a good mouthful of soap, and the potty language will stop.