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March 05, 2004

JEFF JARVIS NOTES that Howard Stern will receive record fines from the FCC.

Do I care? I don't know. If I'm offended by anyone being fined for saying anything on the air I'm offended -- but not any more than I would have been offended in 1992, when:

In 1992 the FCC fined Infinity Broadcasting $600,000 after Stern discussed masturbating to a picture of Aunt Jemima.

Is that better or worse than asking a Nigerian woman if she eats monkeys, or hosting a discussion of whether, when you have sex with a black woman, it smells like watermelons? I guess you can argue that point, but I'd be a lot more impressed with Stern's defenders if they'd quote these comments verbatim in the process of defending him.

And, actually, I do oppose government regulation of broadcast content. But, on the other hand, if you agree that there are standards, then the only question is whether a "record fine" is appropriate in response to Stern's on-air conduct here. I'd say that, if there are to be standards at all, then Stern's conduct is over pretty much any line you're likely to draw. (And Rush Limbaugh would be off the air for much less than this -- in fact, he was taken off ESPN for much less than this, with no noticeable hue and cry from Stern's current defenders).

So while other people are upset about this (including Jeff Jarvis, a smart and generally reasonable guy), I have to say that I just can't muster much outrage. I'd like to see the FCC out of the business of regulating broadcast content entirely, but I'm resigned to the political reality that that won't happen. And, given that the American public seems to want regulation here by a huge margin, it's hard for me to call this particular exercise an abuse of regulatory authority.

I also think it's silly -- as the earlier example, which I picked up from Jeff's comment section, which has others showing that Stern got in trouble all through the Clinton Administration, illustrates -- to pretend that this is an example of Bush somehow crushing dissent. (And, as I noted earlier, Kerry supports the dropping of Stern from the Clear Channel stations). If you want to argue that Clear Channel's dropping of Stern was an example of a big corporation sucking up to Bush, well, maybe it is -- though I suspect that the Bush people would just as soon have avoided this issue entirely -- but then you've got to grapple with the media concentration issues that people like me, and Larry Lessig, have raised: If the airwaves are dominated by a small number of big companies, they'll always tend to reach an accommodation with the powers-that-be. That's how these things work, and it's why too much media concentration is bad.

In my ideal media world, we'd see a lot more low-power radio, and a lot less concentrated corporate ownership. We don't live in that world. But in the world we do live in, it's hard for me to see the Stern business as anything but more of the same Stern schtick, grown even more tiresome.

UPDATE: Reader Frank Lucco emails:

I read your blog regularly and agree with 99% of your viewpoints, but you are so wrong on the Howard Stern issue. First, how do you know what Howard Sterns politics are now, or what they were back during the Clinton administration. Stern is well known for being all over the political spectrum in his viewpoints. He has only come out recently as favoring the Democratic candidate in this election. Furthermore, he has supported numerous onservative candidates and held many conservative viewpoints over the years. Secondly, he fact that Kerry supports the dropping of Stern means absolutely nothing. Its just smart politics on his part. He's not going to pick up any more votes by coming out as the defender of Howard Stern and free speech. Please learn a little more about whats going on here before spouting off with analysis which is clearly being affected by your own personal dislike for Stern.

I don't have any special personal dislike for Stern. I don't listen (he doesn't air around here, as far as I know) but what I've heard seems lame and juvenile.

But Lucco misses my point -- it's "smart politics" for Kerry to back this because the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in some sort of broadcast decency standards. You may disagree with the idea of having those standards -- I do, actually -- but you can't call them undemocratic, or the product of some sort of Bush-inspired right-wing cabal, when they're so widely supported. This is what the Stern supporters can't seem to grasp.

Frankly, the whole thing reeks of a manufactured issue, designed to give some people an excuse to bash the Administration. Where were these folks when The Greaseman was canned?

ANOTHER UPDATE: On the other hand, my former student Rob Huddleston, who sits well to my right, politically, sends this:

I happened to hear Stern this morning on his D.C. affiliate this morning. I don't usually listen to him, although I did regularly when I lived in Chicago. By listening to a few minutes of his rant this morning, a few things were clear:

1) He believes he will be fired today after the fines are announced.
2) He believes that the Christian Right have undue influence over Clear Channel.
3) He agrees with your statements regarding Clear Channel sucking up to Bush, although he blames the Religious Right even more.
4) He is no big fan of Colin Powell's son.
5) He really seems to understand that the FCC continues to make itself relevant through its fining practice.

I am no big Stern fan. Occasionally he is funny, but most of the time he's just a waste of effort. However, I am a bit disturbed by the FCC's actions in this case. What did Stern do recently that deserves this sanction? I can't help but come to the conclusion that this is some sort of retroactive fine for lifetime achievement. Stern is being served up as the sacrificial lamb when the real people who should be on the alter are Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake (who have weathered the storm and will come out of this as heroes to the Left). The whole thing is starting to show the FCC's fundamental weakness in the eyes of the public - it is THE censor in America, and the public does not like censorship as a theme.

Hmm. A "retroactive lifetime achievement award?" Interesting characterization. I agree that the public doesn't like censorship, but I'm not sure that fines for the sort of thing Stern is in trouble for will seem that way in the public mind.

MORE: Reader Lawrence Theriot says that the market is taking care of everything already -- we just haven't noticed!

Yes a lot of what Stern does could be considered indecent by a large portion of the population (which is the Supreme Court standard) but in this case it's important to consider WHERE those people might live and to what degree they are likely to be exposed to Stern's brand of humor before you decide that those people need federal protection from hearing his show. Or, in other words, might the market have already acted to protect those people in a very real way that makes Federal action unnecessary?

Stern is on something like 75 radio stations in the US and almost every one of them is concentrated in a city. Most people who think Stern is indecent do not live in city centers. They tend to live in "fly-over" country where Stern's show does not reach.

Rush Limbaugh by comparison (which no one could un-ironically argue is indecent in any way) is on 600 stations around the country, and reaches about the same number of listeners as Howard does (10 million to 14 million I think).
So in effect, we can see that the market has acted to protect most of those who do not want to hear the kind of radio that Stern does. Stern's show, which could be considered indecent is not very widely available, when you compare it to Limbaugh's show which is available in virtually every single corner of the country, and yet a comparable number of people seem to want to tune in to both shows.

Further, when you take into account the fact that in a city like Miami (where Stern was taken off the air last week) there may be as many as a million people who want to hear his show, any argument that Stern needs to be censored on indecency grounds seems to fly right out the window.

Anyway, I think both sides are making some decent points in this argument, but I hadn't heard one up until now that took the market and demographics into account until last night, and we all know how much faith I put in the market to solve a lot of society's toughest questions, so I thought I'd point this one out as having had an impact on me.

Hmm. Interesting argument. I think, though, that it's better understood as an argument against decency standards at all, rather than an argument against enforcing them where Stern is concerned.