- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

As the New Year approaches, we will be told what was in and out in 2004 and what all that means. A few more weeks are not needed, however, to identify one of the most important counter-forces that emerged in 2004.

Viacom and Disney bracketed 2004’s TV year. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” turned out to be the lasting Super Bowl headline in January, and the year rounded off with Desperate Housewives and Terrell Owens introducing Monday Night Football to steamier subjects than locker-room showers. Relatedly, this year’s exit polls found that 29 percent of voters were motivated by “moral issues.”

In the elections aftermath, the chattering class spent hours talking about what the exit polls meant. Not touched on, but of much greater importance, is how a convergence of forces is creating a cultural counterforce. The motivation and effectiveness of this counterforce were revealed in this election. Regardless of how damaging to the president’s re-election bid the October news from Iraq became, this counterforce held.

There was a time when parents who were outraged by a TV show or a sex-talk radio personality turned primarily to their congressman or to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While both will still hear from the outraged, the challengers to the status quo will increasingly take on a new and much more potent form. Their messages will be heard by the White House and those who dream about taking up residence there.

I chaired the FCC in the early part of the 1990s. I heard from tens of thousands who sent letters and postcards to the FCC objecting to the crude sex talk of Howard Stern and the vulgarity of the TV show “Married with Children.” In the aftermath of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime show, the FCC received not tens but hundreds of thousands of communications.

The difference is the Internet. Not only is e-mail easier than snail mail, but the Internet makes it easy for the disaffected to network. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of micro-networks which move quickly to animate their affinity groupings. While the Internet-empowered alternative news source known as bloggers draws the most media attention, I believe these micro-advocacy networks are of even greater consequence. They facilitate action, not just opinion.

And as more and more homes convert to high-speed services, the sharing of sounds and images will become commonplace. It will mirror the music file-sharing which has changed the face of the music business. Those who are offended can share the material they find offensive. The grassroots increasingly have the same power as the TV and radio networks; they too will soon be able to reach virtually every home in America. This power is already being used to create a more balanced marketplace of ideas, words and images. The forces of the digital age have converged with an increasingly disaffected and vocal heartland attitude.

This pairing will, over time, relieve the FCC of one of its biggest dilemmas. While there are specific program segments that do violate the rules against “indecent broadcasting,” most of the targeted programming is not actionable. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech is broad and deep. When it is actionable the illegality turns on the targeted programming being “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards.” Commissioners and judges are often not the most insightful when it comes to what a given community might find offensive. The Internet is both contemporary and communal.

The FCC should, however, take a rather simple but potentially profound step to enhance the strength of those who find reason to object (most often parents trying to protect their children). It should post to its Internet site the programs that are the targets of complaints. This move would enable the advocacy networks to freely exchange information over controversial programming. If enough persons find the posted programming objectionable and either quit buying the advertiser’s products or quit watching shows that the media company makes, the programming will change. The FCC will then be less an arbiter and more a robust defender of the marketplace of ideas.

Regardless of the definitive influence of the moral values vote this year, one certainty is that highly motivated local leaders now have the tools to make their individual causes into state or national campaigns. No longer do big media control what messages get in and out of the house. While the marketplace of ideas, information and artistic impressions might seem overly concentrated, in truth the physics of networking has changed. The media force is about to meet a powerful new counterforce. That has been one of the biggest stories of 2004.

Mr. Sikes was Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1989-93.

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