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January 26, 2006

An Upside Down World

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The problem with words… The war over what words are appropriate for online versions of newspapers hit The Washington Post last week. Whether we like it or not, it is a drama that will come to our local newspapers soon.

There is no better place to start than with George Carlin’s "Filthy Words," a.k.a. “The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television.” Turn up the volume – the vulgar dissonance will be helpful.

Mr. Carlin’s famous monologue was played on Pacifica radio in 1973. All heck broke loose after someone complained to the FCC. Gee, one wonders why?

The ensuing legal machinations found its way all to the U. S. Supreme Court in the 1978 (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation 438 U.S. 726) decision which “formally established indecency regulation in American broadcasting. In follow-up rulings, the FCC clarified that the words might be acceptable under certain circumstances, particularly at times when children would not be expected to be in the audience.”

According to Wikipediamania:

“During the court case over Carlin's monologue, the Supreme Court established in the "Pacifica" decision the safe harbor provision that grants broadcasters the right to broadcast indecent (but not obscene) material between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 06:00 a.m., when children are thought not to be awake. Thus the FCC has mainly been concerned with indecent content shown or heard between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.”

Of course, “Pacifica” established “broadcasting” standards as to what is indecent. Extending the Pacifica decision to newspapers or the Internet has not been tried, to the best of my knowledge. Considering that, for the most part the Internet has resisted most legal or regulatory overlay. Needless to say, “Pacifica” standards may never have meaningful jurisdiction over the Internet.

Several colleagues I have consulted suggested that the standards promulgated by “Pacifica” may be out-dated. That’s a fair discussion – for another time.

Never-the-less, “Pacifica” is mentioned because all of these issues over “established indecency regulation” are on one huge collision course, especially as the broadcast media and newspapers continue to merge with the Internet.

Yes, after a long courtship, the marriage of TV, radio, the telephone and newspapers with your computer is occurring as we speak.

There is no way better to demonstrate this collision than by telling an interesting story which illustrates the contemporary paradox that what is appropriate for the most innocent and vulnerable may not be acceptable for our local newspaper?

Yes, you read that correctly, the world is turned upside down. We find ourselves in a time and place in our society where school prayer is a crime and pornography is a protected form of free speech.

A controversy recently raged in Carroll County over whether or not a “certain book” was appropriate for Carroll County school libraries. The issue landed on the desk of the Carroll County Public Schools’ superintendent.

When a (Baltimore) Sun reporter asked me about it, my response was that when The Sun found itself in a position to print a few choice paragraphs - excerpts from the book in their newspaper – then it would be fine with me to have the book in the public schools. My comments never made it in the article and neither did the “few choice paragraphs.”

With the wisdom of Solomon, the school superintendent found a “Pacifica” safe harbor and determined that the book could be placed in the high school libraries.

The author of the “certain book” was quoted in a Sun article. “…Her book is an attempt to help struggling teenagers ‘make sense of their changing world. ... As an adult writing for young people, I am aware of my responsibility. I don't just throw in sexuality casually or irresponsibly.’”

Needless to say, in my attempt to make sense of our changing world – I cannot use many of the words that appeared in that book, targeted for young teenagers, in this column or in a local newspaper.

Are you confused yet? Let’s recap: the vulgar language is acceptable for teenagers in our schools – if it is purposeful. Yet it is not okay during primetime TV and not appropriate on the radio or in the newspaper. What in the world is going to happen when all of this is merged together on the Internet?

So where does this leave us at this point? As this column is being written, The Washington Post experiment over maintaining a comment section for its blogs is continuing to rage.

At this point get out a copy of the Beatles “White Album” and play “Revolution” by Lennon/McCartney: “We all want to change your head; you tell me it's the institution; well, you know; you better free you mind instead...”

In a January 21 piece David Carr wrote in The New York Times noted that: “The blowback is hardly without precedent, but it is worth noting that much of it came from the left. Flaming and invective know no ideology, but there is a tendency toward seeing a growing conspiracy behind every ill-chosen word - something once thought to be the province mainly of conservatives.”

The left has indemnified their practice of hate-speech, racial slurs, personal pathology and foul language by saying that they get “angry” over certain issues.

It is all part of a concerted effort, for the most part practiced by the left, that when liberals find a particular book, person, publication or broadcast offensive, they call for a “blog swarm” to inundate the perceived offender in an attempt to crash the website, or intimidate by voluminous vitriolic invective.

It is the online version of well-documented cases of conservative speakers being harassed en masse at public lectures; usually accompanied by food being thrown at them. Ah, democracy – apparently some folks are very intimidated by other points of view.

An example? Oh, do we have to go there?

If you are confused, join the club. However, upon one point I am not confused. Just like many folks, if I want a “locker room” discussion of contemporary dynamics in politics or our community, I’ll go to a locker room, but I’ll have none of it in places like The Tentacle or any online version of my local newspaper.

You say you want a revolution; Well, you know; I guess on this we all agree; And you know; We all want to change the world; But don’t you know your foul language won’t set you free; And when you talk about personal destruction; Don't you know that you can count me out.

(All apologies to John, Paul, George and Ringo.)

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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