Dr. Johnson was on the mark, as usual. But some of the scoundrels looking for a last refuge have deserted patriotism. They’re hiding now behind the First Amendment.
The First Amendment and its guarantee of loud, obtrusive, robust, irresponsible and even seditious speech is the most precious gift bequeathed by those prescient dead white men in Philadelphia, and we have to guard it well. The busybodies will always be among us, chipping away at our most precious birthright.
Even Howard Stern, the sewer-dweller star of radio shock jockery, has First Amendment rights. He’s entitled to say whatever he wants, but if he says it from behind the microphone of a radio or television station he will have to deal with the man who owns the station. Speech is free but it has consequences, as many a drunk has learned late of a night in a barroom.
This is the distinction that confuses a lot of our patriots. The consequences of free speech can be severe for the employers of shock jocks, because the owners of radio stations understand that they own only the transmitter, not the airwaves on which their programs (and commercials) are broadcast. Radio and television stations are merely licensed to broadcast on those assigned airwaves, which actually belong to the people of the United States and are regulated by the representatives of the people - i.e., the Federal Communications Commission. Employers are free, as Mr. Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge have learned, to pass along those consequences.
The owners of the radio stations agree, as part of the contract they undertake with the FCC, to submit to FCC regulations which determine, among a lot of other things, how and what they broadcast on their assigned airwave, or radio frequency. Station WMZQ or Station KLRA cannot, for example, align its transmitter to broadcast on a frequency assigned to Station WMAL or Station WSM and cite First Amendment rights of free speech to do so. Neither can it flout FCC regulations, such as they may be, governing how many gallons of vulgarity, pounds of obscenity and yards of smut it can dump on those assigned airwaves. Neither can the FCC flout its authority, bequeathed and in turn regulated by Congress, to allow the stations to broadcast whatever vulgarity, obscenity and smut pops into the depraved heads of a shock jock.
Howard Stern, bounced off several stations this week after he delivered a remarkably ugly sexual and racial insult of black women (too vile to be repeated here), naturally invokes his right of free speech. Rush Limbaugh, who ought to know better, wants to make a First Amendment case of it, too.
“Smut on TV gets praised,” he told his vast national audience yesterday. “Smut on TV wins Emmys. On radio, there seems to be different standards. I’ve never heard Howard Stern, but when the Federal government gets involved in this, I get a little frightened. If we are going to sit by and let the Federal government get involved in this, if the government is going to ‘censor’ what they think is right and wrong … what happens if a whole bunch of John Kerrys, or Terry McAuliffes start running this country, and decides conservative views are leading to violence?
“I am in the free-speech business. It’s one thing for a company to determine if they are going to be a party to it. It’s another thing for the government to do it.”
The president of Clear Channel Communications, which owns a gazillion radio stations across the land, appeared before a House telecommunications subcommittee yesterday and was suitably attired in sackcloth and ashes (no doubt pilfered from what was left at the cathedral after Ash Wednesday). He even professed shame, a concept alien to showbiz. “We were wrong to air that material,” he said. “I accept responsibility for our mistake and my company will live with the consequences.”
The consequences will live only as long as the public keeps the pressure on. Vulgarity and obscenity have become part of the American way of life, along with fireworks, the Fourth of July and sexually transmitted disease. A leading candidate for president of the United States demonstrates how hip he is by sprinkling the f-word through a magazine interview.
Vulgarity will survive. The radio executives are contrite this week, but none has had a Damascus Road conversion (Mel Gibson can explain this to them). Broadcasting is about filthy lucre, and lucre is, after all, filthy. If the people, who own the airwaves, want to restrict the filth they have a First Amendment right to say so.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.