Phoenix readers must think I’m obsessed with four-letter locker-room words, but I’m really not. What I’m obsessed with is the crucial role the press plays in fighting for and preserving First Amendment freedoms. Two recent “Freedom Watch” columns — “Newspapers Censor Bono’s Fucking Gaffe” and “The Briefly Indecent Boston Globe” — criticized the Boston Globe’s practice of not using expletives in print and online news reports, even when the words are central to the story. My concern started with a Globe report on an upcoming Supreme Court case, which will review whether the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can punish broadcast networks for fleeting expletives (naughty words that creep into live broadcasts inadvertently). Globe editor Martin Baron agreed that he and I would simply have to disagree on this issue. So be it.
But somehow my resignation over the Globe’s policy did not prepare me for the almost absurdly ironic lead editorial in the March 23 Sunday New York Times, “The Supreme Court and Indecency.” While expressing concern over the upcoming Supreme Court case, Times editorialists managed not to mention the precise words that stirred up the censorship pot.
“The words the commission finds so offensive, and so in need of punishment” notes the editorial, “are the sort commonly heard in PG-rated movies and walking down the street.” Despite the contended ubiquity of these words in our culture, the Times gingerly refers to them as “a few bad words,” and, further on, merely as “expletives.”
Even more outrageous, the Times editorial criticizes the FCC for having induced the networks’ self-censorship. “[The FCC’s policy] leads broadcasters to engage in self-censorship to steer clear of the government’s wrath,” intones the editorial. “That self-censorship deprives the public of important cultural and artistic expression.”
Taking a page from the same playbook as the Globe (which is owned by the New York Times Company), the Times’ editorialists have censored themselves, keeping the paper’s generally intelligent and sophisticated readers in the dark as to precisely what the Supreme Court case is all about, surely information as important to the public as the “cultural and artistic expression” excised by the networks. It’s not clear whether the Gray Lady’s editorialists recognized the irony presented by its own style book, which caused the paper to self-censor in precisely the way the FCC tyranny causes the networks to self-censor, or whether the editorialists fell into this trap with their eyes closed. But it hardly matters.
The bottom line is that the Times is not in a very good position to criticize the self-censorship generated in the networks by the FCC, since the newspaper self-censors even without a governmental threat. Such self-censorship gives aid and comfort to the FCC — after all, if a word is not “fit to print,” then it’s not fit to be broadcast.