The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Federal Communications Commission has the power to regulate four-letter words and nudity on broadcast television.
I'm old-fashioned enough to think content regulation of over-the-air television is a legitimate role for the FCC. I suspect the Court, in its zeal for deregulation, will decide otherwise, but until Congress changes FCC responsibilities, the Court should insist the regulatory agency do what it was created to do.
Applicants for broadcast licenses agree to use licenses "in the public interest, convenience, and necessity." (That agreement does not apply to cable or satellite distribution. Cable channels can be as vulgar and obscene as they wish.)
The issue is confused by the fact that many consumers receive licensed over-the-air channels by cable or satellite. Some cable/satellite companies even charge extra for local channels — a blatant abuse of power. After all, consumers can receive local channels over the air, free of charge, and usually with higher quality.
During the Court hearings, one justice compared over-the-air television with 8-track tapes and vinyl records, an admission of the juror's technological ignorance. If anything, cable is the obsolete technology — a throwback to the days when telephone conversations required connecting wires. Neither over-the-air television nor radio require wire connections. And not long ago, the FCC required television stations to switch from analog to digital, making TV technology as modern as cell phones.
Regulation of television and radio language falls within the public interest clause of the license agreement. Opponents of regulation argue that foul language is part of everyday conversation, and therefore crude language should be reflected in programming. That's like saying the quality of life should be determined by the lowest common denominator. If that's true, there isn't much hope for civilization. Popularity is not the same as propriety. If we trade quality for simplicity, then simplicity becomes the goal. If we trade high standards for popularity, then popularity supersedes high standards. James Madison warned us to guard against "the tyranny of the majority."
Standards are as important in language as they are in social behavior, or building construction, or environmental stewardship, or any other human endeavor.
The quality of entertainment did not suffer during the half century when writers and producers paid attention to standards. To argue otherwise is to question the quality of good writing over several millennia of creative effort. Most (not all) writers and entertainers through history have found ways to express themselves without excess profanity. No one needs profanity to make a point; the versatile English language always provides a better way. And it's absurd to think that today's foul-mouthed performers are as entertaining as their more articulate predecessors.
According to those who study such things, the average English-speaking individual utters 860,341,500 words in a lifetime. Only a tiny fraction of those words are profanities. Fewer still would be profanities if we were treated to more, not fewer, examples of quality language use.
Arguments heard by the Supreme Court focused primarily on protecting children from seeing or hearing things they should not see or hear. But where language and communication are concerned, we are all children in the sense that we have much to learn. We cannot learn science from a teacher who is scientifically illiterate. Neither should we expect to learn language from teachers who are functionally illiterate, whether those teachers are in the classroom or on media. We are right to expect from those who entertain us examples of quality, not examples from the streets.
My colleagues in the communication world disagree, of course. They take the easy way out. But there should be at least one avenue of popular communication where higher standards are required — where the audience can tune to even the most stupid programs (there are many) without hearing language abused or good taste assaulted.
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Programmers also disagree with me. They don't want the responsibility of setting standards. They claim the "market" will take care of it — a position most of us know to be nonsense. The "market" includes children, advertisers and too many viewers who have never made the effort to cultivate taste. Children have no say in the market. Advertisers favor quantity over quality. And tasteless viewers are content to justify their own inadequacies.
Deregulation is a poor excuse for debasing the English language.
G. Donald Gale has spent 50 years studying, teaching and working in book publishing, magazines, newspapers, television and radio.