Democratizing the Media

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Considering
the Bush Administration's current zeal to "democratize"
the world (continuing the century-long trend), it would appear to
many to be "unpatriotic" to call democracy dangerous.
But, I'm going to do that and let the chips fall where they may.

In
my capacity as managing editor of TALKERS magazine, I'm intensely
interested in the current assault on free speech by the FCC, politicians,
special interest groups and other crusaders. Today, my curiosity
was piqued by the Time magazine poll accompanying the current
issue's feature story titled, "Has TV Gone Too Far?"

The
poll of 1,010 American adults shows the following results:

  • 36% want
    the government to ban violence
  • 41% want
    the government to ban cursing and sexual language
  • 41% want
    the government to ban sexual content such as nudity
  • 49% want
    the government to regulate basic cable
  • 31% want
    the government to regulate premium cable (HBO, etc.)
  • 33% want
    the government to regulate satellite radio

The
kicker is that the text above the poll data reads, "Watching
Television: Americans find TV too risqué, according
to the results of a Time poll, but that doesn't mean they, personally,
are offended. And they don't want anyone else choosing what they
shouldn't watch." (My italics.)

None
of the data above rises over 50%, so how can the one justify writing,
Americans find TV too risqué?

Pols
and Polls

My
quarrel with Time's use of the above language may seem like
nitpicking but some people take these polls very seriously — especially
politicians — and they hear what they want and disregard what they
don't like (such as the numbers). President Bush insists that he
follows his heart, does what's right and doesn't govern by the polls.
It's not true. All politicians care very much about polls because
they believe they reflect their constituents' opinions and therefore
their chances of getting re-elected or passing the baton to their
successor.

The
zeitgeist in Washington is such that Congress is very willing to
make life miserable for broadcasters. They are working hard at it
right now. They are crafting a bill that would fine radio and TV
stations, and the individuals on the air, hundreds of thousands
of dollars each time they utter an "indecency." The text
of the Time story, even though the survey shows a minority
of Americans actually have a problem with television and radio,
will cause politicians to point to the magazine and say, "See,
Americans find TV too risqué!" In other words, they
will argue that most Americans want this legislation – whether
it's constitutional or not.

And
so we get to democracy.

Republic
or democracy – does it matter?

It's
often pointed out that America is a republic, not a democracy. This
is usually noted when someone, who believes he may not have the
majority of the public on his side, is trying to promote his agenda.
This fact is conveniently ignored when he does have popular support.

A
democracy is often defined as a system of government whereby the
power is retained and directly exercised by the people, i.e., majority
rule. Whereas a republic is usually described as a system whereby
the power is delegated to representatives to protect their rights
according to a set of rules such as a constitution.

Whether
America is called republic or a democracy is increasingly irrelevant.
Those who watch politics know that lawmakers follow polls and make
their decisions based on their perception of what the majority of
their constituents believe regardless of whether or not those decisions
result in unconstitutional laws. Hence we have a democratic system
that is subject to the changing mood of the masses. And that mood
does not necessarily come from a strict majority of the public but
sometimes from those who shout loudest.

Look
at our history. Some states have the death penalty, then they don't
and then they do again. The nation doesn't have legal abortion,
and then it does. Marijuana possession is legal, and then it's a
felony, then a misdemeanor and then a felony again (depending on
the ever-changing circumstances).

Broadcasters
can expect to ride the same roller coaster of public sea change
unless they take the indecency issue to court and prepare to spend
a lot of money defending their First Amendment right to produce
the content they deem is best for their business. Even if they win
at the Supreme Court, nothing is forever. After all, the Supreme
Court once declared slavery perfectly legal. But, at least the change
in the Supreme Court's tide takes a lot longer than that of Congress.

March
25, 2005

Kevin
Casey [send him mail] is
the managing editor of TALKERS magazine, the leading trade publication
for the talk media industry.

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