Lord Acton wasn't the first person to notice the corrupting property of increased power, but he did phrase in an eloquent and memorable way. Unfortunately, he never gave us as pithy a phrase for the tendency of power to make people stupider than furniture. Pity. It would have made a nice headline for this story.
Someone somewhere is demanding that Michael Powell do something about that quadrennial source of filth that is the Olympics.
In response to one or more indecency complaints, the Federal Communications Commission has asked NBC to send it tapes of its coverage of the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies in Athens, the network confirmed late yesterday.
Ironically, the night before, NBC's Summer Games coverage was named the family-friendliest special of 2004 during WB's broadcast of the sixth annual Family Television Awards.
I can't say for sure that the source of this complaint is the radical clerics of the religious right; the FCC won't release that information. But the overwhelming odds are that it is. According to MediaWeek, over 99% of indecency complains received by the FCC come from just one group, Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council. In 2000 and 2001, the FCC received fewer than 350 complaints per year. Last year, that was up to 240,000 thanks to organized campaigns by Bozell's group. By the end of November, they were up to 1,068,767 complaints (half of which were over Janet Jackson's right breast).
The prominent role played by the PTC has raised concerns among critics of the FCC's crackdown on indecency. "It means that really a tiny minority with a very focused political agenda is trying to censor American television and radio," said Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, an artists' advocacy group.
PTC officials disagree.
"I wish we had that much power," said Lara Mahaney, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based group.
Savor that quote. It's an open admission that their goal is to censor every American's media exposure. Good thing they're conservatives and not big-government, nanny-state, elitist liberals who think they know what's best for people.
Most of those numbers and ambition were in place before the election, which, the media informs them, was won for Bush by their turnout and "values." Many self-proclaimed spokesmen for the radical religious right have openly announced their intention to demand payback from the GOP for their support.
This brings us back to the silly Olympics complaint. Is this the religious right already overreaching? As I said, we can't know for sure, but it looks that way. Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, made it perfectly plain in The New York Times a few weeks ago that he is perfectly willing to let groups like Bozell's drive the agenda for his agency.
But we are not the federal Bureau of Indecency. We do not watch or listen to programs hoping to catch purveyors of dirty broadcasts. Instead, we rely on public complaints to point out potentially indecent shows. Advocacy groups do generate many complaints, as our critics note, but that's not unusual in today's Internet world. We are very familiar with organized protests when it comes to media issues, but that fact does not minimize the merits of the groups' concerns.
This will get sillier and uglier before it gets better. I have mixed feelings about how to deal with this. It is a serious issue that we need to keep tabs on.
Do we sit back and let them have enough rope to hang themselves, counting on there silliness to make them a focus of contempt and derision? That runs the danger of them not being laughed at and actually carrying out their agenda before anyone notices that it has happened. Do we lead the ridicule? That course runs the risk of blowback when the thin-skinned inhabitants of the interior states decide we are laughing at them and their religion, godless, bicoastal elitists that we are. Do we raise a loud warning and risk being seen humorless crybabies who see a fascist behind every bush? Is a more subtle approach possible, one that takes the issue of censorship seriously and that focuses attention on the censorers and not on us?