Ever since Super Bowl viewers got a split-second glance at Janet Jackson’s breast three years ago, Washington’s Republican power brokers — aided and abetted by a disturbing number of Democrats — have tightened up broadcast standards in a truly bizarre way.
Cultural dreck and lowest-common-denominator fare on commercial networks has been largely unaffected, but high-brow, high-end programming at PBS has suffered. A tiny California public television station was fined after a single viewer complained about some “tough” language, which had been used in context, in a Martin Scorsese–produced documentary about the blues. The current-events show Frontline is on constant alert lest it incur the wrath of the federal broadcast police. And now filmmaker Ken Burns, who tackles apple-pie subjects with uncommon grit and intelligence, is caught up in a controversy about whether four words — two “fucks,” one “shit,” and an “asshole” — in his 14-hour documentary about World War II, The War, will land broadcasters who air his work in trouble. That trouble could cost stations up to $1.3 million in fines each time they broadcast an uncut and uncensored version of Burns’s work.
Not surprisingly, two versions of The War have been prepared, but many PBS outlets are still not sure which one they will air or when. The safest course would be to run The War with all the allegedly hot-button words only during the so-called safe haven between 10 pm and 6 am and to run the sanitized version the rest of the time. It is a decidedly depressing cultural moment when serious broadcast outlets have to weigh the possibility of penalties that could range from significant to huge to show the work of a serious filmmaker. And even if no fines result, the very process of defending oneself against such charges is costly, and thus intimidating in its own right.
Outrage aside, there is also a depressing dollop of irony in this particular incident. That soldiers and sailors use salty language is not exactly a revelation. But one of the unintentional linguistic byproducts of World War II was a vocabulary enriched with inspired displays of profanity that have an almost poetical rudeness. There is an example that some scholars of language cherish of an officer shortly after the D-Day landings asking a soldier why he wasn’t moving his Jeep from a blocked intersection, “The fucking fucker is fucked, sir,” the soldier explained.
There are the acronyms SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up) and FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition or — more politely — Fouled Up Beyond All Repair) that are now commonplace. We — and our language — are richer for them.
The FCC’s role as the media’s linguistic watchdog is all the worse for its lack of definition and clarity. That uncertainty-breeding vagueness is more than just a part of the current administration’s general repressiveness. It is part of the Bush White House campaign to create, in Karl Rove’s words, its own reality. To create a world of fiction and illusion, you must first destroy the real world. And if you can’t destroy reality (which is, after all, a rather tall order for the insidious but incompetent Bush crowd), then you want to discourage people from coming to grips with it.
Bush’s FCC is first and foremost mired in the old-time religion of prudery. But don’t kid yourself. It is also animated by mind control. Colorful language from blues musicians and aging beatniks might offend Christian right wingers. But the honest profanity of World War II might remind a larger public — even if only subliminally — that the war our nation is fighting today in Iraq is a not a good thing.
The perversity of today’s FCC is that by being vague it can be more effectively chilling, censorious, and repressive.