- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

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When ABC’s affiliate stations are afraid to broadcast “Saving Private Ryan” for fear of being fined by the Federal Communications Commission, it makes me wonder about the new moral order that some people think is on the rise.

I can’t say for sure, but if Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic tribute to America’s troops is off limits to the networks, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” had better watch their backs.

Even though “Saving Private Ryan” aired uncut and without public uproar in 2001 and 2002, about 65 of ABC’s more than 220 affiliate stations refused to air the movie this Veterans Day, including such large markets as Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando and Detroit.

What’s changed? History and politics. First, there was Janet Jackson’s breast-baring wardrobe malfunction at this year’s Super Bowl, which led to heavy fines against CBS and its affiliates.

The stations tried to get an advance ruling, but, as an FCC spokeswoman told The Hollywood Reporter, “that would be censorship.” With no FCC guidelines to guide them, stations serving about a third of the nation censored themselves.

Another factor in their decision was the reputed rise of “moral values” as a defining issue in the recent elections. “We’re just coming off an election where moral issues were cited as a reason by people voting one way or another,” Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns three Midwestern stations, told the Associated Press. “And, in my opinion, the (FCC) commissioners are fearful of the new Congress.”

But a closer look at Election Day exit polls indicates the reputed rise in social conservatism may be a false media-generated perception. The exit polls conducted nationally by research companies Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International showed “moral values” with 22 percent, beat “economy and jobs” (20 percent), “terrorism” (19 percent) and “Iraq” (15 percent) as the issue of greatest importance to voters.

The Pew Research Center found similar results with a post-election poll of 1,209 voters. But when Pew offered a wider range of choices, “moral values” fell to only 14 percent, behind “Iraq” (25 percent) and ahead of “jobs and the economy” (12 percent) and “terrorism” (9 percent.)

The biggest category turned out to be “other,” which included such options as “honesty” and dislike off Bush or Kerry, although if you combine Iraq and terrorism (36 percent) the way the Bush campaign constantly did, they beat every other category. No, it is we in the media, biased toward anything that sounds new, who inflated the importance of “moral values,” Within hours, “moral values” became a durably defining issue of 2004 like “soccer moms” in 1996 and the “angry white males” of 1994.

It is not even clear what the voters who mentioned “moral values” had in mind. Did they mean, for example, that the racy, yet realistic language of “Saving Private Ryan” was enough to take it away from those who wanted to see it on TV without having to buy a cable TV subscription?

The American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., thinks so. The long-time TV watchdog group is urging viewers to complain to the FCC about the movie’s “at least 20 ‘f’ words and 12 ‘s’ words,” even though they, too, approve of the movie’s patriotic themes.

When I asked AFA President Tim Wildmon, son of founder Don Wildmon, in a telephone interview if he perceived FCC is putting a chill on artistic creativity by the networks, he responded, “Good! They need to be chilled a little bit.”

Do they? If there is anything we do not need to encourage in network television, it is more blandness.

Besides, with all due respect, I think AFA’s view is a bit extreme. For example, the same AFA Web page that calls for complaints against “Saving Private Ryan” also calls for complaints against a Hardee’s hamburger ad that features “a young women suggestively riding a mechanical bull eating one of their thickburgers in a rather pornographic way.”

Unlike hamburger ads or Ms. Jackson’s breast, the saucy language in Spielberg’s film has redeeming social value, to use the Supreme Court’s famous phrase. Its language, like its brutal violence, is an integral part of the riveting realism that makes the Oscar-winning movie a uniquely effective cinematic tribute to the heroism of ordinary Americans at war.

If there is any production with which parents can be trusted to decide the viewing habits of their household, this is it. Want to hide a show from your kids? Tell them “You ought to see this; It’s really educational.” If they’re like my son, they’ll quickly find something else to do.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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