Democratizing the Media

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