Monday, January 20, 2014

people shouldn't get their understanding of the world from comedians

There is a reason why people shouldn't get their understanding of the world from comedians.

Clip from George Carlin : What Am I Doing In New Jersey? (1988)
Appropriately, this bit was after a long list of things he doesn't like.

Transcript :
Keep in mind, these Reagan people are the ones that were going to get the government off our back. Remember that? That was the rhetoric of the 1980 campaign : "We'll get government off your backs and out of your lives". Yeah but they still want to tell you what magazines you can read and they still want to tell you what rock lyrics you can listen to and they still want to force your kids to pray in school and they still want to tell you what you can say on the radio. The FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, decided all by itself that radio and television are the only two parts of American life not protected by the free speech provisions of First Amendment to the Constitution. I'd like to repeat that because it sounds vaguely important.
The FCC, an appointed body, not elected, answerable only to the president decided on its own that radio and television were the only two parts of American life not protected by the free speech provisions of First Amendment to the Constitution. Why did they decide that? Because they got a letter from a minister in Mississippi. A Reverend Donald Wildmon heard something on the radio that he didn't like. Well Reverend, did anyone ever tell you there are two knobs on the radio? … Of course, I'm sure the Reverend isn't that comfortable with anything that has two knobs on it.  But hey Reverend, there are 2 knobs on the radio. One of them turns the radio off and the other one changes the station. Imagine that Reverend, you can actually change the station. It's called freedom of choice and it's one of the principals this country was founded upon. Look it up in the library if you have any left when you finish burning all the books.
The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) began 1934 and it's predecessor organization the Federal Radio Commission was formed in 1926. The Supreme Court had dealt with the FCC as early as 1943

Interestingly, the 1943 Supreme Court case was specifically about the FCC overreaching and claiming powers not specifically granted by the legislation. The Supreme Court decided 5-2 (with 2 Justices not taking part) that FCC regulations were not limited to just the technical aspects of broadcasting but they could also regulate other aspects including content.  The 5 Justices in the majority were all appointed by FDR. One of the dissents was appointed by FDR and the other dissent was the sole Justice on the Court appointed by Herbert Hoover.  The  Rev. Donald Wildmon mentioned by Carlin was born in 1938 and was 5 years old at the time (and he may not have been a reverend yet).  It is possible he may have been a precocious letter writing at 5 year old but I have my doubts.

From the majority opinion :
True enough, the Act does not explicitly say that the Commission shall have power to deal with network practices found inimical to the public interest. But Congress was acting in a field of regulation which was both new and dynamic. 'Congress moved under the spur of a widespread fear that in the absence of governmental control the public interest might be subordinated to monopolistic domination in the broadcasting field.' Federal Communications Comm. v. Pottsville Broadcasting Co., 309 U.S. 134, 137, 60 S.Ct. 437, 439, 84 L.Ed. 656. In the context of the developing problems to which it was directed, the Act gave the Commission not niggardly but expansive powers.
In other words, "screw what the law actually says we'll just pretend it says what we want it to say."

In a 1953 case the Supreme Court described the bounds of FCC regulation as "the vaguish, penumbral bounds expressed by the standard of 'public interest.' "

Again, from the majority opinion in 1943 :
We come, finally, to an appeal to the First Amendment. The Regulations, even if valid in all other respects, must fall because they abridge, say the appellants, their right of free speech. If that be so, it would follow that every person whose application for a license to operate a station is denied by the Commission is thereby denied his constitutional right of free speech. Freedom of utterance is abridged to many who wish to use the limited facilities of radio. 
So, because radio is a limited medium that not everyone can participate in at once that justifies even more restrictions on those few who are allowed to participate.  It wasn't exactly that the FCC "decided all by itself."

George Carlin was probably referring something a little more contemporaneous.  The 1978 case before the Supreme Court, the FCC vs Pacifica Foundation had its origins in a broadcast of George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" skit in 1973.  Contrary to what Carlin said, Rev. Donald Wildmon did not write the letter of complaint that prompted the case. It turns out a guy named John Douglas complained to the FCC.  He wasn't in Mississippi, he was driving back to Long Island, New York from New Haven, Connecticut and complained about WBAI-FM out of New York City.  John Douglas belonged to Morality in Media while Donald Wildmon founded the National Federation for Decency.

I suppose "a minister in Mississippi" carries a different set of stereotypes than "a CBS executive in New York" or depending on what part of Long Island he lived and where he worked "a CBS executive in New York City"

"if you have any left when you finish burning all the books"  The complaint by John Douglas was specifically complaining that the bit was inappropriate to be broadcast on a Tuesday afternoon.

Considering the case was decided in 1978 it might be a bit careless to blame the FCC "answerable only to" Jimmy Carter on "these Reagan people." Besides, I'm not sure exactly how much influence a sitting president has on the FCC ("answerable only to the president") considering they are appointed to staggered 5 year terms and a maximum of 3 members can be of the same party. But I wondered who was on the FCC Commission at the time :

FCC Commissioners when the broadcast occurred
(Tuesday afternoon, Oct 30, 1973.
The complaint was sent in November 1973)
Nicholas JohnsonDemocratJul 1 1966 to Dec 5, 1973
H. Rex LeeDemocratOct 28, 1968 to Dec 31, 1973
Charlotte T. ReidRepublicanOct 8, 1971 to Jul 1, 1976
Richard E. WileyRepublicanJan 5, 1972 to Oct 13, 1977
Benjamin L. HooksDemocratJul 5, 1972 to Jul 25, 1977
FCC Commissioners in 1978
(when the case was heard by the Supreme Court April 18 & 19, 1978
and when it was decided July 3, 1978)
James H. QuelloDemocratApr 30, 1974 to Nov 1, 1997
Abbott M. WashburnRepublicanJul 10, 1974 to Oct 1, 1982
Joseph R. FogartyDemocratSept 17, 1976 to Jun 30, 1983
Margita E. White RepublicanSept 23, 1976 to Feb 28, 1979
Charles D. FerrisDemocratOct 17, 1977 to Apr 10, 1981
(the FCC site listing FCC commissioners shows the name, party affiliation, state and their term of service. Margita E. White's state is listed as Sweden. I assume she was born there and not that she represented Sweden.)

Carlin also refers to "these Reagan people" as those who"still want to tell you what rock lyrics you can listen to" but the PMRC, to name the most prominent group, was a bipartisan hysteria. (I thought it was hysterical hysteria because I was listening to some of the music highlighted and hadn't realized its perversity until Tipper Gore and the PMRC pointed it out. Some of the music I sought out just so I could hear it for myself.)  The "they still want to tell you what magazines you can read" I assume refers to Attorney General Meese and the Meese Report which I understand was focused less on what people read and more on the graphical elements.

While I like people who defend freedom of speech, it seems dangerous to treat it like a team sport and only boo the other team while staying silent about the censorious tendencies of your own team. The concern is that when your team does overstep the habit of staying quiet will continue.

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