Fine-happy FCC silences 'Private Ryan'

Sunday, November 28, 2004

"Saving Private Ryan" aired on Veterans Day in Springfield, Mo., a decision KSPR general manager Dave Tillery said was not difficult.

But in one-third of the country, viewers were instead treated to Oprah, "Coming to America" or "Return to Mayberry."

Michael Powell must be proud.

The Federal Communications Commission chairman has led the agency on a witch hunt against indecency, cheered on by Congress and large portions of the American public. He's getting what he asked for: broadcasters so cowed and afraid that they run from any hint of controversy.

It started when U2 singer Bono used an expletive on a live awards show broadcast. When the FCC declined to levy a fine, Congress howled.

When Janet Jackson's right breast flashed across the country for a microsecond during the Super Bowl halftime show, CBS was hit with a $550,000 fine.

Last month, the FCC fined Fox $1.18 million for an episode of "Married by America" that included a bachelor party featuring strippers and various sexual situations.

None of these broadcasts are on a par with the artistic excellence of "Saving Private Ryan," which won five Oscars. But the film, which ABC aired uncut and unedited, is rated R for "intense, prolonged, realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language." Does this cross the new lines the FCC has drawn? KSPR's Tillery notes that the commission rejected complaints when the movie was shown in 2001 and 2002. But this year, with the big fines as a backdrop, no one at the FCC would offer any assurances. With the American Family Association threatening to file complaints against any station that aired the film, 67 ABC affiliates decided to play it safe. Among them were stations in St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Nashville, Honolulu, Phoenix and Orlando.

It's a shame that viewers were cheated of this opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices that veterans make, of the way that war both dehumanizes and elevates. "Private Ryan" shows the reality of war in a way few movies do.

But the greater shame -- and the greater threat -- comes from the blanket of self-censorship that the FCC is dragging across America.

The soldiers who died on Omaha Beach, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq, died fighting for freedom. Freedom is not always pretty. To be real, it must encompass the crass and the sublime, the poetic and the hateful. To be real, freedom cannot be doled out by the government.

Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction did not derail democracy or the freedom to speak out. That is the job the FCC has taken upon itself, as one-third of the country learned on Thursday night.

Robert Leger is the editorial-page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.

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