11/13/2004

The New Censorians

Right-wing moralists launch censor war

America’s freedom of speech is under attack. Mickey Mouse and Private Ryan had better watch out, says Ros Davidson in Los Angeles

WHAT do Tom Hanks, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, U2’s Bono, Janet Jackson’s boobs and Mickey Mouse have in common? They’re all targets in an attack on American popular culture, which is accelerating following George Bush’s re-election.

E-mail complaints from angry right-wing viewers are flooding federal regulators this weekend following the unedited broadcast on Remembrance Day of the film Saving Private Ryan.

In fact, one third of the local TV stations affiliated with national network ABC, owned by Disney, refused to air the critically acclaimed second world war blockbuster because it contains swear words. The Oscar-winning film about D-Day, directed by Steven Spielberg, also includes graphic, realistic violence.

The 66 stations, from Boston to Detroit and Honolulu, said they feared sanctions from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for airing “profanity” during prime evening hours. That was despite the fact that ABC had promised to cover any fine by the commission, whose members are appointed by its president.

“ABC crossed the line by airing at least 20 ‘f’ words and 12 ‘s’ words during prime-time viewing hours!,” says the evangelical group American Family Association, which claims it has 2.3 million members and is one of the groups leading the revamped charge against “immorality”. “We believe ABC should have aired their salute to heroes without violating broadcast decency laws,” it said.

Each TV station could face a fine of £18,000 if found to have aired “indecent” material. Under long-standing guide lines, profanity is banned from 6am to 10pm on America’s publicly owned broadcast channels, but not on cable channels.

“It would clearly have been our preference to run the movie,” says Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns three of the stations. “We think it is a patriotic, artistic tribute to our fighting forces.”

Senator John McCain, a one-time POW in Vietnam, introduced Saving Private Ryan on Thursday. A maverick Republican and a former presidential candidate, he spent much of Thursday trying to stem the desertions. The film is nowhere near indecent, he says angrily.

Initially, only 20 stations were expected to opt out. The 1998 movie has been shown twice before on ABC, to come complaints from viewers but without TV stations baling.

Previously, regulators have permitted some programmes with swearing to be aired when the language is justified artistically by the context. According to an agreement between Spielberg and the television network ABC, the film could not be edited for artistic reasons.

Thursday’s widespread reaction worries cultural observers because of America’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and because ownership of TV and radio outlets has become dramatically consolidated in recent years.

“It’s self-censorship,” says BJ Bullert, a communications scholar at the University of Washington. “There’s a climate of intimidation, especially in response to the election. It’s a new kind of cold war, and it comes from the top, from George Bush and Karl Rove.”

The national mood is different now, and not just because of the election results. “Moral values” were cited by 22% of Americans as the top issue in the November 2 vote, according to pollsters.

In September, regulators fined CBS £299,000 for the live broadcast in January in which singer Janet Jackson’s breast was bared briefly during half-time at the Super Bowl . Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” prompted accusations of immorality from conservative activists, some viewers, members of Congress and commentators.

Rove, Bush’s top political adviser, says: “I think people are concerned about the coarseness of our culture, about what they see on TV and in movies.”

Former Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire, a columnist with The New York Times, describes it as the “social political event of the past year”.

Conservative Christian groups, including the American Family Association, are also rallying against the new film Kinsey, released this weekend to critical acclaim, and starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

The ideas in the film, directed by Oscar-winner Bill Condon who also made Gods And Monsters, promote pre-marital sex, which leads to abortion and Aids, claims the group Catholic Exchange.

Kinsey is a gripping and “brutally honest, uncompromising and non-judgemental” look at the controversial university researcher who revolutionised cultural attitudes towards sex in the 1940s and 1950s, said a CNN reviewer.

Robert Knight, of the curiously named Concerned Women for America, told Associated Press recently that Kinsey was akin to the notorious Nazi pseudo-scientist Dr Josef Mengele.

Knight backtracked on the comparison on Friday, but his reaction indicates the seriousness of America’s culture wars.

The American Family Association also calls for a general boycott of Disney, because the company has encouraged gays to visit its theme parks, and of food giant Procter & Gamble for hiring gays.

Two months after the Janet Jackson incident, which also involved singer Justin Timberlake, NBC ran up gainst the FCC. Rock star Bono, from the band U2, said “f***” during the live broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards.

Recalled less often, say critics of the culture wars, is the record fine of £652,000 for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network for the heterosexual reality programme, Married By America. At issue were prime-time scenes in which “party-goers lick whipped cream from strippers’ bodies” and two female strippers spanked a man on all fours wearing only his underwear, said the commission complaint.

The silence over Fox’s fine, from those who tout “moral values”, is hypocritical, says a column by Frank Rich in today’s New York Times. Fox News has become controversial for its right-wing commentary and popularity in “red” or pro-Bush America.

Another indication of the red culture scare is the action of one of the US’s newly elected politicians, Tom Coburn, a senator from Oklahoma, says Rich.

As a state-elected politician, he attacked NBC in 1997 for encouraging “irresponsible sexual behaviour” and for taking “network TV to an all-time low with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity”. His anger was prompted by the prime-time airing of another Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, about the Holocaust.


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