Two years ago, I warned in these pages of the danger that the government, in response to the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during January’s televised Super Bowl, would use the threat of fines and license-revocation to create a climate of self-censorship among broadcasters. I take no pleasure in saying “I told you so.” But the chill in the airwaves is unmistakable, and the viewing public is the biggest loser. The most recent example involves dozens of CBS affiliates who refused to rebroadcast the documentary “9/11” for fear they would be fined for the coarse words uttered by rescuers. This is one of many instances of broadcast licensees altering or canceling worthwhile programming out of concern about finding themselves in the Federal Communications Commission’s crosshairs.
The FCC doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is responding to a degree of public unease with the content available in homes. And it is sensitive to campaigns orchestrated by interest groups with cultural and political agendas. But America long ago determined that government’s role in shaping media should be extremely limited. This is true even in the case of broadcasters, who willingly assume public-service obligations in exchange for being licensed to transmit content over public airwaves. No one imagined these obligations to include accepting censorship.