Monday, June 06, 2005

Bullying A Bully

Last week I discussed a recent Parents Television Council commentary on the Paris Hilton commercial for the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's fast food chains. I wasn't alone of course, lots of other blogs commented on it, including Tony Figueroa's Child Of Television, and SpeakSpeak News. What I want to write about now is something that happened a few weeks ago.

The PTC has made a major push against a recently formed organization created to promote responsible television viewing without governmental action. The PTC made Television Watch a major target of their ire because three of the four major US networks or their parent corporations support the organization: Fox (News Corporation), NBC (NBC Universal) and CBS (Viacom). On the whole the come across as the schoolyard bully complaining about being bullied. A cartoon on the PTC website depicts TV Watch as a puppet under the control of the monstrous hands of CBS, NBC and Fox (I won't reproduce the cartoon here - the PTC seems like the sort of group that would sue if someone who didn't like them reproduced something from their site). PTC president L. Brent Bozell has something to say about those individuals and groups (including The American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and the US Chamber of Commerce) that are not networks but are part of TV Watch:

"This supposed coalition needs to be taken - and dismissed - for what it is: a collection of random citizen and public policy groups that have simply been hired and paid for by the networks to do their dirty work. Some of these organizations, like the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform have never given a moments thought to the suffocating sewage coming from the entertainment industry. That in and of itself is shameful. But now, suddenly, they care? Its a laughable proposition to think that this hired gun coalition will have any impact whatsoever on the ongoing debate over decency and the public airwaves.

"The question needs to be asked, and I now ask it publicly: Given that these organizations have never before participated in the debate over television indecency - why the sudden interest now? These organizations, and this so-called coalition, have an obligation to disclose the level of funding they're receiving, directly or indirectly, from the networks and the entertainment industry to do their dirty work."

Actually, I don't think that they do any more than I think that the PTC has an obligation to disclose the level of funding that they receive from evangelical religious or conservative groups - or even why Steve Allen is still shown as a member of their "Celebrity Advisory Board" despite having been slightly dead for almost five years. Where does their funding come from? They would have us believe that they are a grassroots organization of people outraged by what's on Television - sorry the "suffocating sewage coming from the entertainment industry" - but what are their ties with groups like the American Family Association or Focus On The Family which are backed by the conservative Protestant churches?

The thing is that I can readily understand why groups like The American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and the US Chamber of Commerce are supporting Television Watch. On the whole economic conservatives take the point of view that "the government that governs least is governs best", by which they really mean that the government that regulates least is best, and the describe liberals as wanting more and more regulation. On the other hand the agenda of the social conservatives is that government must make regulate human behaviour to make it "correct" (at least in their view). Television regulation is an area where the two visions of conservatism conflict.

To further explain this I need to dip back into my brief and disastrous attempt to become a teacher. One of my required classes was in educational administration where we were introduced to the concept of in loco parentis. If your Latin is even more nonexistent than mine, this roughly translate as "in place of the parent". In simple terms this meant that from the time the kids arrived at school to the time they got home, the teacher had powers over them equivalent to their parents. According to the acts and regulations governing the schools in Saskatchewan this meant that the teacher was to act in the manner of an idealised "fair and responsible" parent in all areas including discipline (which at the time that I was in university included corporal punishment as a last resort). It seems relatively clear that what the PTC and groups like it want is for the television industry to program their networks as if they were in loco parentis, and for the FCC to punish the networks if they don't. But all of this seems to ignore the role of parents.

In the darkest period of World War II, when France had fallen and the United States had yet to enter the war Winston Churchill told the United States "Give us the tools and we will finish the job." Government and the broadcast industry have done a lot to provide parents with the tools that they need to be fair and responsible. They have willingly surrendered certain of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech by accepting laws on the language and images that can be shown. They provide rating labels in front of every entertainment show indicating what age group the show is suitable for, and sometimes include warnings both in text and spoken form at the start of shows. They make their labels compatible with the V-Chip technology as mandated by the FCC. Consider the tools available on my TV and cable set-up. My TV is equipped with the V-Chip (although it doesn't work with the Canadian ratings system). My TV allows me to block channels and is password protected. My digital cable box allows me to block specific programs, and to lock out entire channels. It too is password protected. Unlike people in North Korea I'm allowed to change channels. There's an on-off switch on both the TV and cable box. It seems to me that the existing regulations - the regulations which both the liberal and conservative supporters of Television Watch find acceptable - give parents plenty of tools to do the job.

What the PTC wants is reminiscent of what the campus Communists at the University of Saskatchewan wanted. Every Friday they'd set up their information tables in the College of Arts building under a big sign that said "No Free speak For The Klan." They wanted to decide what sort of speak was acceptable, and it seems to me that what the PTC wants to accomplish is pretty much the same thing. The question I always wanted to ask the campus Communists and would like to ask the PTC is this: once you've denied free speak for one group, what is to prevent someone else from denying free speak to another?

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