Saturday, December 04, 2004

Suitable for Americans and small children
Here is another fine and embarrassing example of self-censorship at work.
US distributors of the film Merchant of Venice, which premiered in London this week, have asked the director to cut out a background fresco by a Venetian old master so it is fit for American television viewers.


Distributors regularly ask for cuts in films so that they can be shown on US television and by airlines. The request to "paint-box the wallpaper" -- cover over the fresco -- was contained in a letter from the US distributors, Sony, to Michael Radford.


[A]ccording to Mr Radford, there was "a very curious request which said 'Could you please paint-box out the wallpaper?'. I said wallpaper, what wallpaper? This is the 16th century, people didn't have wall-paper."

When he examined the scenes, he realised the letter was referring to frescoes by Paolo Veronese, the acclaimed Venetian 16th-century artist, which, when examined closely, showed a naked cupid.

"A billion dollars worth of Veronese great master's frescoes they want paint-boxed out because of this cupid's willy. It is absolutely absurd," he said.

The director said he would resist the effort to cut out the fresco...

Do you get the feeling the writer was sneering when he wrote the phrase "fit for American television viewers"? Is "suitable for Americans" about to become a term of derision around the world in the same way "good enough for government work" is among those very Americans. The fear of Michael Powell is making us a laughing stock.

Am I exaggerating when I say we now have a system of self-censorship based on fear? Look at what FCC Chairman Michael Powell says ton the op-ed page of the New York Times:
The agency has increased penalties significantly, recognizing that they must be large enough for billion-dollar media companies to stop treating fines as a minor cost of doing business.

Some have also questioned why the commission is unwilling to issue rulings before a broadcast, as was the case with the recent network showing of "Saving Private Ryan," a film the commission had previously held was not indecent. While ABC and its affiliates understandably would have liked to know the program was in bounds before proceeding, the precedent of submitting programming or scripts for government review borders dangerously on censorship. The Communications Act expressly forbids the F.C.C. from banning a program before broadcast, and any such effort might very well run afoul of the First Amendment. This is a step I do not want to take.

If a broadcaster crosses the line, Powell will hit them with a fine big enough to hurt a billion-dollar media company, but he's not going to tell them where that line is. What can any company do but play it safe and cautious and make their product as inoffensive as possible. Powell piously and disingenuously claims that he can't give us and guidelines because that would be censorship and censorship is wrong.

Powell makes it clear who is running this system:
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.

He's practically inviting right-wing culture warriors to set up their own Bureaus of Indecency. He doesn't mind being manipulated by organized advocacy campaigns.

But does that work both ways? Could liberal or libertarian advocacy campaigns balance out the noise from the right? In a word, no.
If one slices through the rhetoric, you'll find that most opponents of the agency's strong enforcement efforts believe that the government simply should not impose any decency standard at all. Berating citizens who believe in values and reasonable limits is insulting and polarizing and distracts from the legitimate issues of this policy debate.

Anyone who questions the complaints of the right is a smut-mongering pornographer who is insulting the heartland "citizens who believe in values and reasonable limits." By definition, the questioners have no values. But we knew that.

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