More than a year after Bono said, “This is really, really fucking brilliant” on live TV, Republicans have launched a fresh attack on the U2 singer and a broad attempt to scrub obscenity from the airwaves.
In October, the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau ruled that Bono’s acceptance speech at the 2003 Golden Globes — U2 won for “The Hands That Built America,” from Gangs of New York — was not indecent or obscene because it “did not describe sexual or excretory organs or activities.” On January 13th, FCC chairman Michael Powell demanded that the decision be reversed. “I personally believe that this growing coarseness in use of such profanity . . . is abhorrent and irresponsible,” Powell said at a National Press Club luncheon on January 14th. “And it’s irresponsible of our programmers to continue to try to push the envelope.” Powell, who will need votes from at least two of his fellow commissioners to reverse the decision, also called on Congress to raise obscenity fines on broadcasters to at least ten times the present maximum of $27,500 per violation.
Within hours of Powell’s speech, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said that he would seek to dramatically increase penalties for broadcasters. Eleven other Republicans and Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) have sponsored a resolution that asks the FCC to revoke the license of television stations that repeatedly air indecent material. A bill sponsored by Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) even aims to completely ban, from all radio and network television broadcasts, the following words: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and asshole.
“These seven words don’t have any possible use over the public airwaves that can be anything but profane,” Ose says. “There’s just no use for them.” Bono told a reporter, “If you use [expletives] in your everyday speech, sometimes they will come out. I don’t mean to offend anyone.” Several other musicians told Rolling Stone that Powell’s campaign is misguided. Eamon, whose breakup ballad “F**k It” is the best-selling single on the Billboard charts, says, “It’s a guaranteed waste of time.” Singer-songwriter Steve Earle, whose recent Tell Us the Truth Tour aimed to raise awareness about the dangers of media consolidation, says, “I don’t think anyone, with the exception of the Christian right, gives a fuck about whether someone says a dirty word on the radio or TV anymore. There are much bigger fish that the FCC should be frying, if the FCC is indeed about the stewardship of the airwaves.”
Critics say that Republicans are ignoring the value of free speech. Under Ose’s rules, for example, CBS’ Emmy Award-winning documentary, 9/11, which included many obscenities, would either have been banned from television or significantly bleeped. Live broadcasts would also lose their immediacy: “One of the exciting things about live TV is that you’re always looking for that unguarded moment,” says Scott Grogan, a spokesman for Fox, which is being investigated for a December 10th broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards that included Nicole Richie swearing. “When you get that live moment — it’s what makes TV so vital.”