Jeremy J. Jones – Stranded in Thought

August 13, 2009

Watch Your Mouth: The F.C.C. Is Listening

Filed under: History,Non-Fiction,Politics — Jeremy @ 3:27 pm

In April, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling that allowed the Federal Communications Commission to levy fines against broadcasters for fleeting expletives, despite the Commission’s earlier assertions that such cases would be allowed under certain circumstances. This sets us down a dangerous path of excessive power granted to government agencies, and both major parties are at fault. For a review of this case, as well as the meaning of terms contained in this article, please read “What Are We Saying?“. This article was written as a college project, but has been updated with the information of the recent Supreme Court ruling. It’s a very interesting trip down the path from free speech to today’s government intervention in what we see and hear. Please enjoy!


Copyright © 2009 Jeremy J. Jones


 

Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which American television and radio are entirely clear of all forms of foul language, nudity, and violence. Nowhere is there any programming like “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “NYPD Blue,” or even Imus in the Morning or the Howard Stern Show. Where have they gone? They were canceled, not because fines drove them out of business, but because they violated the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) obscenity, indecency, and profanity policies, and were forcibly removed from the air. While this is not a likely outcome – and is presently constitutionally impossible – it is theoretically possible in the future.

The concept of a safeguard for children has been globally dogmatized by the Christian Church over the past two thousand years, and in the past hundred has been successfully woven into American law. The FCC has the right and responsibility to assess fines to broadcasters for violating standards of obscenity, indecency, and profanity in response to complaints from citizens as a means of protecting our children from premature exposure to “adult” images and language. Now that the FCC has the power to regulate, they are very much under the influence of Congress and the White House, and this makes for inconsistency in regulation, confusion among broadcasters, and politically-charged censorship of the airwaves. Rather than relying on government to control what children see and hear, Americans should take the bull by the horns and reject government control over broadcasters.

The United States began censorship of obscene and indecent material long before its independence; however, it was not always thought necessary to protect children from such things. Historically, children were viewed far differently than they are today. Marjorie Heins, founder of the Free Expression Policy Project and former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arts Censorship Project, observes that in ancient Greece, children were not the vessels of virtue and innocence that they are today. Children were to be kept under control and trained properly, but there was no societal need to shield them from information about sex. Rather, the relationship between “an adult man and an adolescent boy” was the most valued in terms of sex; thankfully this is no longer the case. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, was the first to challenge these notions by stating that theater productions involving crime and debauchery were improper and should be outlawed (Heins 15). Mary Hull’s observations show that the assessments of many opponents to indecency today echo Plato’s sentiments: “[t]he belief that violent and sexually explicit images can have harmful effects on audiences is behind many challenges to materials, particularly those used in schools” (6). Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, pushed the matter even further; he made the now well-known claim that spectators at a violent opera do not reenact the events of the opera, but release their built-up tensions during the show via catharsis. However, he did feel that children should be protected from such displays by keeping them away from less than virtuous productions, lest they become less virtuous themselves (Heins 16). So Plato and Aristotle, for the first time in Western history, made the first strong push toward protecting children from vice in the interest of maintaining their innocence.

While the two famous philosophers first championed the idea of protecting the purity of children, albeit mildly, the Christian Church turned this simple philosophy into a mission. These attitudes can still be witnessed today, as religious organizations repeatedly lobby government to stamp out pornography and indecency. David Savage of the Los Angeles Times notes: “The government says broadcasters who use the public airwaves have a duty to protect children and families from unexpectedly hearing foul language.” When it first came into existence, Christianity heavily promoted “children as untamed vessels of depravity and Original Sin” (Heins 16). Over time, culture changed due to religious influence, and the innocence of children became revered and cherished.

While the Christian Church eventually succeeded in its goal to limit what children see and hear, Western society didn’t start that way. Marjorie Heins notes that prior to the 1800’s, the most common victims of censorship were “heresy and sedition” (23). This is logical, given the close ties between church and state of the times in Europe and early Western Hemisphere colonies. The Church, vying to keep itself in power, would naturally seek to root out all forms of heresy, and monarchs would do the same versus sedition. It is only natural for the powerful to seek more and more restrictive ways to preserve their power.

Over time, society began to adopt the policies of the Church, and arrests began being used in an attempt to eradicate obscenity. Experts agree that the first such case occurred in London in 1663 and involved Sir Charles Sedley, a famous writer and “intimate of the King” who, while intoxicated, publicly danced about on the balcony of “The Cock”, a Bow Street tavern (Alpert 40-41; Heins 24). Sir Charles was completely naked and shouting obscenities in a “mountebank sermon” to the crowd below (Alpert 42). But Sir Charles’s case might have gone unnoticed had it not been for his next act. According to an account of the incident in 1 Keble 620, Sir Charles was punished “for shewing himself naked in a balcony, and throwing down bottles (pist in) vi & armis among the people in Covent garden, contra pacem and to the scandal of the Government” (qtd. in Alpert 42). This case was used as a precedent some forty-five years hence against a pornographic book dealer; the case was dismissed (Heins 24). However, government and the Church had their legal precedent, and it was used successfully to begin pushing toward a more restricted manner of public speech and writing.

Over time, this attitude spread to the American Colonies, and eventually the torch was picked up by Mr. Anthony Comstock of New York. Comstock was a devoutly religious man, and was stunned at the degree of pornography that existed in American bookstores in his day. Heins reports that Comstock, seeking to root out and destroy all written pornography,  found like-minded wealthy men and formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose purpose was to rid society of all elements that would lead men to “secret vice” or “unbridled indulgence” (30). Alpert observes that Comstock then successfully moved a bill through Congress in 1873 which made it illegal to send “certain books” through the mail, and subsequently took a pro bono job with the U.S. Post Office to lead the campaign to confiscate all such materials (65). With these actions, Comstock set the precedent for the FCC’s regulation of broadcasting in America, although his methods were far more oppressive.

After Comstock had led the way, and religious groups began pressuring legislators, it was a simple matter to grant the FCC the authority to fine broadcasters for airing “inappropriate” material. Tony Mauro notes that the Federal Radio Commission and its successor the Federal Communications Commission were created for the purposes of controlling the issuance of licenses to broadcasters, to ensure that the airwaves would not end up a jumble of deejays talking over one another (152). But from the very beginning, both commissions were given the power to regulate broadcasters’ content via U.S. governmental code.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Law Revision Counsel, as well as the FCC website, the Commission is governed by the United States Code, Section 1464 of Title 18, “Crimes and Criminal Procedures.” This document states: “[w]hoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both” (331). This line was written in or around 1927, and it has been kept for eighty-two years, with absolutely no edits, despite the fact that society has changed significantly during the same period of time.

With regard to filing complaints with the Commission the procedure can seem a bit daunting. Dr. Milagros Rivera Sanchez, former associate professor in the Department of Telecommunication in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, and her colleague Michelle Ballard, explain that a complaint to the FCC must contain “the station’s call letters,  the date and time of the broadcast, and either a copy of the program or a partial transcript that allows the staff  to determine the context in which the indecent language was used” (145). This procedure might seem easy to follow, but imagine the quandary of a highly religious person, attempting to quote language he or she considers “indecent” or “profane.” Fortunately for them, they don’t always have to; Linda Greenhouse notes that 92.7 % of the complaints received by the FCC for Bono’s use of an expletive at the 2003 Golden Globe awards were filed by the Parents Television Council, a not-for-profit organization established to prevent sex and violence from being broadcast on television. This is hardly directly representative of society; rather, it is a case of a lobbyist organization controlling the direction of government.

When filing a complaint, the complainant must either provide at least some of the verbiage of the broadcast, or a copy of the program, so that context can be determined. If this material is not provided, the Commission will contact the complainant to request it, and if it ultimately cannot be delivered, the case is dismissed (Rivera Sanchez and Ballard 145). This policy places the onus heavily on the complainant, which would tend to deter complaints. However, as previously indicated, many complaints are filed from lobbyist organizations, so a concerted effort is certainly made by these organizations to record and document “offensive” programs, just in case there is a violation. Additionally, the FCC web site indicates that filing requirements are not so stringent as the Rivera Sanchez article states. The FCC requires only that sufficient details be provided that the Commission may determine context. But given that the average complainant might have difficulty navigating the web site to find the right source documents, the complaint procedure is somewhat elusive.

In spite of this, the number of annual complaints has been increasing steadily in the past several years. In the Commission’s chart regarding the number of complaints and Notices of Apparent Liability (NALs: the documents issued by the FCC when it assigns potential responsibility to an entity for a violation), “Indecency Complaints & NALs: 1993 – 2006”, the data show that the number of annual filed indecency complaints increased from 111 in all of 2000 to 327,198 for the first six months of 2006. It is worthy of note that there are no data in the chart on annual complaints from 1993 to 1999, and no data can be found from the FCC for July 2006 to present. Also important is that though the number of NALs was consistent at seven for both 2000 and the first six months of 2006, the dollar amount of assessed fines was vastly increased, from $48,000 to nearly $4,000,000. This indicates that the average fine was steeply raised, beginning in 2003. Strangely, there were no NALs issued in 2005, despite the fact that nearly a quarter-million complaints were received. These data show that either broadcasters are becoming more risqué with their programming or citizens have begun an earnest campaign of submitting complaints to the FCC, though the FCC has maintained essentially the same evaluation protocols while increasing the dollar amount of fines. However, an analysis of past cases shows that the Commission is anything but consistent.

In order to understand the ambiguity in FCC evaluations, it is helpful to first attempt to understand the language of its standards. According to the FCC web site, “obscene” is defined as material of a pornographic nature, “indecent” material is that which “depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards,” and “profane language” is the use of words considered offensive enough to be considered a “nuisance” to society. In addition, the FCC has defined a “safe harbor” period (currently from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., daily), during which a broadcaster may air indecent and profane material without fear of punishment. These terms help the reader understand the classification process used by the Commission when evaluating complaints. Additionally, these terms give the appearance of consistent evaluation criteria. However, much of the language used in the FCC web page is ambiguous, and this ambiguousness leads to subjective conclusions. For example, indecent material must be deemed “patently offensive” in order to be considered a violation, but language which is offensive to one person is commonplace to another. Also, to be considered profane, language must amount to a “nuisance”; this is another ambiguous term, as one could consider government’s intervention in broadcasting a nuisance.

The vagueness of government’s definitions for the terms “indecent” and “profane” is not clarified by a review of FCC decisions. Rivera Sanchez and Ballard explain that “[a]lthough the FCC has said that it will consider whether the offensive language is fleeting or isolated,…when it comes to expletives, the FCC appears to have zero tolerance” (147). The FCC claims to have a policy of fining the first incidence of an offense with a small fine, putting all other broadcasters on notice as to the seriousness of the matter, and then escalating fines for subsequent cases by any broadcaster of the same or similar offenses. However, when fleeting expletives are used, the data show that the Commission takes a hard stance toward the offender. For example, in 1992, a station was fined $3,750 for the use of one expletive, “shit,” which was broadcast only a single time. In 1997, another station was fined for four separate incidents, wherein the disc jockeys and their call-in guests were graphically describing sexual acts. The conversations were reminiscent of the Howard Stern Show, which had been receiving incrementally higher fines for the same type of offenses, yet the station in the 1997 case was fined only $2,000 per incident (Rivera Sanchez and Ballard 147-48). These contrasted cases show clear ambiguity or favoritism in FCC rulings, and a particular affinity for escalating fines in response to broadcasted expletives.

However, not all the ambiguity rests on the shoulders of the Commission. Congress and the courts have played a large role in changes in FCC policies during the past twenty years. In 1987 the FCC changed its benchmark for indecency, and simultaneously reduced the safe harbor period by pushing back the start time from 10 p.m. to midnight, shrinking this period from eight hours to six. A series of legal challenges and policy changes ensued until 1995, when the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that a midnight start time for the safe harbor period was not the “least restrictive” policy to apply, and overruled the decision, declaring a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. safe harbor for all broadcasters. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case in 1996, and the safe harbor has remained unchanged since that time. (Rivera Sanchez and Ballard 145). This final example shows that Congress has repeatedly attempted to give greater powers to the FCC, but that the courts refuse to allow such transgressions. It is also important to note that in the entire eighty-two year existence of either the Federal Radio Commission (1927) or the Federal Communications Commission (1934), only two cases have been heard by the Supreme Court regarding indecency or profanity with the Commission as a litigant: FCC v. Pacifica Foundation in 1978 and FCC v. Fox Television Stations in 2009. It is truly shocking that only two such cases have been heard by the Supreme Court in the long history of the FCC given the sensitive nature of the First Amendment and the FCC’s tightrope walk along its restrictions.

In these two cases, the Supreme Court declared that the FCC’s actions were legal, both in issuing an NAL to Pacifica in 1978 for its broadcast of George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” sketch during daytime hours, and in issuing NALs to Fox Broadcasting in 2002 and 2003 for expletives used during the Billboard Music Awards.

It is nothing new to see government attempt to expand the powers of the FCC. As far back as 1969, members of Congress have taken this tack. However, Olga Hoyt observes that historically, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a private organization, has policed the industry voluntarily. While broadcasters’ membership in this organization is not required, the NAB strongly encourages and puts forth great effort to recruit broadcasters to join the NAB and conform to the its Radio and Television Codes, which are aimed at reducing profanity, indecency, and obscenity, as well as “words derisive of any race, color, creed, etc., any attacks on religion” (97). While this was seemingly intended to keep the FCC’s fingers out of broadcasters’ affairs, mention of these codes are difficult at best to find at the NAB website, at least not worded in these ways. What can be found, however, is a message from David K. Rehr, President and CEO of the NAB. He writes, in part, that the role of the NAB is “to [promote and protect] the interests of radio and television broadcasters in Washington and around the world.” So it would seem that the NAB is a large lobbyist organization, that would ostensibly seek to self-regulate the industry, so as to appeal to lawmakers’ interests, and keep the status quo with the FCC.

Unfortunately, with such an organization’s existence can come attempts to alter its intended functions and strengthen its power, and not necessarily from within. Olga Hoyt writes that during the 1960’s Senator John O. Pastore (D-RI) sought to remove all violence from television in both news and entertainment programming. He wanted all networks to put their produced works before “the [NAB] Code Authority before they went on the air.” This would mean that television would be censored before being broadcast, or “pre-censored” (99). This was obviously nearly forty years ago, but it is still surprising to see such a move by a member of the Democratic party; on the contrary, one might expect this request from the Republican party, spurred by religious organizations. However, Jane Kirtly, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, observes in her article, “How Dirty Is That Word,” that generally, it is the Democrats who lean toward more control over “content” and greater restrictions on “media ownership,” while Republicans tend to turn a blind eye to the control of content and do not favor ownership regulations (66). Thankfully, it seems no such policy has ever been adopted by the NAB, and Congress has not submitted any such legislation.

However, certain members of Congress are seeking to control broadcasters’ newscasts for political means, by returning to old ways. In 1987, the FCC repealed its “Fairness Doctrine,” which was aimed at providing freedom of speech, but instead discouraged broadcasters from airing political or opinionated discussions due to the requirement that they then air an opposite response if it were requested. Daniel Patrick, former FCC Chairman, and Thomas W. Hazlett, professor of law and economics at George Mason University, note that while there was no means of measuring the reduction of programming under the Fairness Doctrine, there was a sharp increase in the number of “informational” programs. This fact indicates that the Fairness Doctrine served to limit what news agencies broadcast for fear of appeals for equal airtime to counter previously aired information. Patrick and Hazlett observe that at the time the doctrine was rescinded, Congress did not wish to do so, as Democrats saw the measure as a means of “counter[ing] the slant of ‘corporate’ media,” and the Republicans wanted to use the doctrine to “oppose the liberal establishment.”

These trends continue to this day. At least two members of Congress, Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D., N.Y.), are introducing legislation designed to bring back the concept of fairness in news broadcasting (Patrick and Hazlett). Essentially, there is concern over the amount of radio and television devoted to one political side or the other. Some in Washington believe that mandating “fairness” would rid the world of Fox News’s and CNN’s style of political broadcasting (Patrick and Hazlett). However, this might make the airwaves more confrontational, or eliminate political discussion altogether. If fairness is the goal, it might be better applied to the concept that news agencies ought to represent both sides of any non-political story, rather than just the negative “shock value” aspects.

Furthermore, in recent years the FCC has been rather vague about what incidents will incur fines. Deborah Potter, executive director of the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, notes that in 2004 following the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl fiasco, the Commission rescinded its past judgment that single utterances of profane language are not at risk of being fined. Specifically cited was the Bono Golden Globe event, which the FCC had previously ruled a non-violation, but about which it had changed its mind in the wake of Jackson’s misstep (Potter). This is a sharp turn in a very dangerous direction. Congress not only took no action to prevent such a measure, it has actually encouraged this policy by steadily increasing the maximum allowable fine per incident from less than $10,000 to more than $30,000, and hinting at increasing it “to as much as $500,000 per incident” (Potter). Then again, John Files and Todd Shields independently observe that in 2005 the Commission ruled that the unedited airing of the film “Saving Private Ryan” by ABC did not violate indecency standards because it accurately depicted events of Word War II. If Congress successfully passes a bill increasing fines, an accidental live broadcast of a stream of profane language could bankrupt a local station. The past decisions of the FCC would leave broadcasters paralyzed with confusion over what is allowable in broadcasts, which would mean that newscasters would be forced to self-censor their stories, restrict what they report, or actually restrict their broadcast of live news to the safe harbor period. However, no such restriction will be placed on cable broadcasters, so there will be discrimination against network television (Potter). This would be most unfortunate, and most likely would not be upheld by the courts.

In our history, society has slowly grown wary of subjecting children to indecent and profane language and pictures, and we have enacted legislation designed to protect them. This directly led to the creation of the FCC and to subsequent Congressional decisions on the extent of its powers. Further, the Commission has been granted considerable leeway in application of policy, and has largely run unchecked since its inception: particularly so in the past twenty years. Worse yet, Congress and the White House actually seek to use the FCC as a political tool to reduce the influence of their opponents and critics, and these policies have been largely successful. When we rely on government to aid us, generally it aids itself in its aims. A better tack is for society to work together to regulate itself and protect its children. In this way, we keep the power for ourselves, and ensure that we view and hear what we wish, and not only what politicians would like. Certainly, no one would wish a society in which our government can actually control the messages we are allowed to broadcast on television and radio, but we are dangerously close to such a reality. Americans must move toward self-regulation of what our children see and hear, and stop relying on our government’s slanted ideologies to help us raise our children.

References

Alpert, Leo M. “Judicial Censorship of Obscene Literature.” Harvard Law Review 52.1 (1938): 40-76. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Tunxis Lib., Tunxis Community College 25 Jun. 2008 <http://plp.txcc.commnet.edu&gt;.

fcc.gov. Federal Communications Commission. 2008. 12 Jun. 2008 <http://www.fcc.gov&gt;.

Files, John. “Arts, Briefly; Approving ‘Private Ryan’.” New York Times on the Web 2 Mar. 2005. 10 Jun. 2008 < http://www.nytimes.com&gt;.

Greenhouse, Linda. “Justices Take Up On-Air Vulgarity Again.” New York Times on the Web 18 Mar. 2008. 10 Jun. 2008 <http://www.nytimes.com&gt;.

Heins, Marjorie. Not In Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Hoyt, Olga. Censorship in America. New York: Seabury Press, 1970.

Hull, Mary E. Censorship in America: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

Kirtly, Jane. “How Dirty Is That Word?” American Journalism Review June, 2001. 24 Jun. 2008 <http://www.ajr.org&gt;.

Mauro, Tony. “Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission”. Illustrated Great Decisions of the Supreme Court. Washington: CQ Press, 2000.

nab.org. National Association of Broadcasters. 2008. 22 Jun. 2008 <http://www.nab.org&gt;.

OT Granted/Noted List. 07-582 FCC V. Fox Television Stations. United States Supreme Court. 19 Jun. 2008 <http://www.supremecourtus.gov&gt;.

Patrick, Dennis and Thomas W. Hazlett. “The Return of the Speech Police.” Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition) 30 Jul. 2007, east. ed.: A13. ProQuest Newspapers. Tunxis Lib., Tunxis Community College, 10 Jun. 2008 <http://proquest.umi.com&gt;.

Potter, Deborah. “Indecent Oversight.” American Journalism Review Aug./Sep., 2004. 24 Jun. 2008 <http://www.ajr.org&gt;.

Rivera-Sanchez, Milagros and Michelle Ballard. “A Decade of Indecency Enforcement: A Study of How the Federal Communications Commission Assesses Indecency Fines (1897-1997)”. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 75.3 (1998): 143-53.

Savage, David. “Supreme Court to Rule on Broadcast Indecency; The Justices will Consider Whether Federal Regulators Can Impose Large Fines.” Los Angeles Times 18 Mar. 2008: A13. ProQuest Newspapers. Tunxis Lib., Tunxis Community College, 10 Jun. 2008 <http://proquest.umi.com&gt;.

Shields, Todd. “ABC’s Ryan Airing Not An Indecency Violation.” MediaWeek.com 7 Mar. 2005. 17 Jun. 2008 < http://www.mediaweek.com&gt;.

United States. Cong. House. Office of the Law Revision Counsel. The Code of Laws of the United States of America: Title 18-Crimes and Criminal Procedure. 109th Cong., 1st sess. Sect. 1464. Washington: GPO, 2005. 12 Jun. 2008 <http://uscode.house.gov&gt;.

May 26, 2009

Antitrust Me: We’ll Be O.K.

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 9:09 pm

We occasionally hear much talk about U.S. antitrust law in our media, but only when a frenzy is afoot. The most recent big news was the pursuit of Microsoft by the U.S. government for violating said antitrust law, by forcing out smaller competitors and racing to market to obsolete products and retain its monopoly.

Antitrust law is very complicated, and I have not researched it in any great detail. But I do know its intent; antitrust law is designed to protect both consumers and business from unfair business practices by: trusts, groups of companies conspiring together to control access to products or to control prices and effect a monopoly (also called cartels); and single companies who use their power to force out smaller competitors – we could argue which meet this definition for a long time.

What I’ve found interesting for a long time is that while Microsoft might have violated these laws, the U.S. airline industry has been doing so daily since its deregulation in 1978. Here are a few examples:

  • The companies work together to set prices to the market; when one raises price, all the others do the same within minutes, and vice-versa.
  • Each of these companies has absolutely horrible customer service, though some are far worse than others. The general attitude of the airlines is: “Go to hell. We’re too big to care what you think.”
  • Each company is filled with unions that slow down work processes, drive up costs, and create more errors than they fix, and yet, none of the companies seems to mind this.

What is most stunning about these and countless other examples is that the U.S. government doesn’t seem to care. This group of companies was the first that was “too big to fail” in 2002, when billions of dollars were doled out to companies in order that they might stave off bankruptcy. And several of those who took bailout money have since filed bankruptcy anyway. Brilliant.

The notable exception to the acceptance of bailout funds was Southwest Airlines, which escapes this essay without a target on its back; it could be better, but that company is leaps and bounds above the others.

Despite all of this, no one in Washington ever says a thing about the airline industry, most likely because politicians fly on private jets at taxpayers’ expense, but that’s another discussion. So consumers are at the mercy of an industry that raises prices on a whim, but lowers them with molasses-like slowness; has anyone seen a removal of the fuel surcharges added last year in response to gasoline prices, even though fuel prices are now approximately half what they were then? No. And all are quiet about it.

Regarding the poor service one experiences when flying, I’d like to make an exception. I’m sure there are more, but we only remember the bad usually. But this one stands out; Chesley Sullenberger and his crew on board US Airways flight 1549, which was successfully put down in the Hudson River in New York, saving the crew and all passengers, and all citizens on the ground. These people have the right attitude, dedication, and strength. It’s too bad they’re not the ones running the company; it might just get fixed.

On the other hand, we have the pilots of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed on approach into Buffalo on February 12, 2009, killing 50 people, including both pilots. In May, results of the NTSB investigation were released, and it turns out that these two pilots had absolutely no business being in that plane, on that approach, at that time of year. Neither pilot had ever flown in icy weather. They also had remarkably little flight time between them. But that’s not all. They actually were discussing their fear of the ice, having never flown in it, rather than checking their flight instruments, up to the moment of the crash. These pilots were ill-equipped for the situation into which they were placed. They could have denied the route, but that would likely have cost them their jobs. I blame not the pilots; based on the evidence, I’d say they did their best, and that it unfortunately and tragically was not good enough.

Rather, I blame the airline for having placed those pilots in such a situation in the first place. Many would assert that it is greed or search of profit that killed those 50 people. That’s true, but not in the way most people might think. You see, there is a little statistic that airlines keep that could be called “on-time delivery.” This is a measure of how accurately to flight schedules passengers actually get delivered. To my knowledge, there is a bit of tolerance, but it is quite limited. Pilots are pressured to be on time: not too early, and definitely not too late. If pilots have a bad track record with on-time delivery, they get cut by the airline, and have a hard time finding other work. So pilots, especially in the biggest economic downturn most of us have ever seen, will fly even when they are not comfortable to keep their jobs. Hence, those two pilots had that plane in the air, even though they were scared to death of the ice. That is the real tragedy in this case. 50 people are dead because two pilots were more afraid of being reprimanded for being late than crashing the plane. Terrible.

On the lighter side of this topic, let’s have a look at how airlines measure themselves, and promote themselves to us. They like to tout that they have 99.5% on-time delivery, and numbers like that. That sounds really good, until you think about it, and realize it is a ridiculous figure. The average big airline, like American Airlines, operates between 300 and 500 flights per day. This means, on the small side, that to be 99.5% on time, only 298.5 flights need be on time. The other 1.5 flights can be early, or late, or very, very late, and it doesn’t reflect in the figure. Also, I suspect that canceled flights aren’t taken into consideration, because once canceled, they are no longer scheduled to land anywhere and therefore cannot be late. So all these details point us to one reality of airline travel, as far as the airlines are concerned; it is better to have one plane five hours late than ten planes five minutes late.

Why is that? Because assuming our 300-flight example, ten late planes would mean an on-time delivery of 96.7%. That’s a huge difference. However, in the first case, one five-hour late flight, we have a couple of hundred hugely inconvenienced people. That’s certainly better than 2,000 slightly late people.

I’ve wondered for a long time now, why have one plane forty-five minutes late when we can have nine planes five minutes late? Rather than making 200 passengers wait for forty-five minutes, resulting in many missing their connections, we could stagger things. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Mechanical problems, and we have to wait for another plane? No. We take the next plane of comparable size to leave, and those passengers take that one. Bump every plane up by one, and we eventually catch up, and everybody is maybe five or ten minutes late. Ah, but that would wreck on-time delivery.
  • Flight crew delayed? That one is my favorite. Get another flight crew. There are about a dozen around at any given time. Move the flight crews to different flights to get everyone where they need to go. But oh, I forgot; the pilot’s union won’t stand for that. “We don’t care if you’re going to miss your connection in Chicago, Mr. Customer. We’re going to Miami for the weekend.”

At the risk of coming off a bit harsh (I do that sometimes), maybe the airline industry should stop holding its hands out to Washington and instead use them both to pull its collective head out of where it’s stuck.

These companies are the worst kind of monopoly. They seem to think that consumers exist to serve them, rather than the other way around. It’s the reason that smaller carriers like Southwest have been slowly becoming huge by changing the game. Oh, and actually listening to the customers.

A novel idea.

May 9, 2009

What Are We Saying?: The F.C.C. Gains More Power Over Our Airwaves

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 6:03 pm

The Supreme Court recently upheld the F.C.C.’s determination that a one-time, fleeting use of an expletive on live television could be punished under the indecency statute, as reported by the New York Times: Supreme Court Upholds F.C.C.’s Shift.

This sets a dangerous precedent, and should be reviewed immediately.

It’s important for people to understand the role of the F.C.C. Its task is to ensure that no broadcaster violates the “Crimes and Criminal Procedures” statue of the United States Code, Section 1464, Title 18. This document states: “whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

But the meaning of the words “obscene, indecent, or profane” have been left open to interpretation, presumably to allow the meanings to change with time. However, this leaves them open to interpretation based on personal, rather than popular, opinion.

The F.C.C. has five commissioners. They are appointed by the President of the United States, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and they serve five-year terms. The President appoints a chairperson from one of the five, who provides the moral compass for the Commission. Based on the five-year term limitation, any president who serves two terms will have the opportunity to nominate commissioners to all five spots. However, only three of the commissioners may be from any one political party.

But what this means is that like the Supreme Court, the President has the ability to place commissioners sympathetic to his party’s dogma in place in the F.C.C., and can even name one the chairperson. In fact, the only requirement to be a commissioner is to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. One need have no experience in the broadcasting world, and it’s preferable if one doesn’t to prevent favoritism or lenient treatment of broadcasters.

As a result of these rules, the F.C.C. can make any determinations it wishes regarding what we are and are not allowed to see or hear in our broadcasts. The only way to stop them is to take the case to circuit courts, which has happened several times, and to the Supreme Court if necessary, which has happened twice.

The most famous Supreme Court case involving the F.C.C. and indecency was the broadcast of the late George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine. A New York radio station broadcast the sketch in its entirety, and was fined by the F.C.C. after a complaint by a listener. (Incidentally, the F.C.C. can fine no one if a citizen files no complaint; they have no teeth if society allows things to pass.) They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld that broadcast of those words was “indecent.”

I should define those three words, in terms of the government, as well as the rules regarding their broadcast while I’m at it. All these definitions come from the F.C.C. website.

Obscene material is defined as “material of a pornographic nature.” This material can never be broadcast. Ever.

Indecent material is defined as that which “depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.” This one requires some significant discussion. First, one must wonder why we cannot broadcast material that “depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs,” when we are constantly bombarded with advertisements for products helping with erectile and vaginal dysfunction, constipation, difficulty urinating, and incontinence. I fail to see why a discussion about sexual intercourse in a drama or comedy is any less appropriate than an advertisement calling for a man to visit a doctor if he has an erection lasting more than four hours.

Profane language is the use of words considered offensive enough to be a “nuisance” to society. That is exceptionally vague and open to interpretation.

Now, it might be interesting to learn that there is a defined “safe harbor” period, during which a broadcaster may broadcast up to indecent material with no penalty upon complaint. That is currently defined as from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., local time. This is the reason why we can see reruns of “Sex and the City” at 11 p.m. where they don’t edit the words “asshole” or “Goddammit.”

One other interesting piece of information is that none of this applies to the Internet, cable television, or satellite radio; these media may broadcast what they wish. The Internet is somewhat of a gray area, but the F.C.C. considers subscription fees for cable and satellite broadcasts, as well as the known more risque programming on these outlets, as a sort of acceptance that material might be offensive or inappropriate for children.

But lately, some performers have been dropping F-bombs at the Golden Globes or Video Music Awards, one time only, and people have been offended and have complained. The F.C.C. has levied huge fines to the broadcasters, and the Supreme Court upheld that this was legal. This means that Fox could be liable if a football player drops an “F” too close to a field mic, or if Ward Burton uses an epithet to decry his and his team’s performance on race day (one which I personally loved; say it like it is, Ward!).

I think it odd that we have a definition of indencent language as that which is “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards,” that simply does not reflect all contemporary communities. I don’t know very many people who have never dropped an “F” in conversation, and it’s not because I’m a heathen. It’s because there is but a minority of American population that does not occasionally use these words.

If you want to know the origins of the F.C.C., start with Sir Charles Sedley, in 1663 England, who was the first person ever fined for acts of indecency (that is a great story; either look it up or ask me). Then flash forward to the late-nineteenth century in New York and one Mr. Anthony Comstock, the father of modern American restrictions on language. This man waged war on obscene language in books, primarily pornographic books, resulting in his working on a pro bono basis for the U.S. Postal Service, where he headed a team which confiscated and burned books considered offensive. He set the precedents for religious groups, who set out to protect children through our broadcasting. Though the F.C.C. and its antecedent, the Federal Radio Commission, were created for the purpose of regulating broadcast frequencies, a statute was slipped in when no one was looking to make sure our children hear no dirty words. It’s a good thing too; they’re so well protected today as a result.

Lastly, I think it is sad that I live in a world where our broadcasters are required to limit what they can broadcast, in clear violation with the intent of the First Amendment, based on the desires of religious groups who seem to think the word “fuck” is offensive but have no problem with “nigger” or “wetback” or “squaw.” It’s just backward that in most families, we scold people for using so-called curse words, but turn around and tell racially-charged jokes continually. That greatly disappoints me, and should disappoint you too. You know who you are.

But the latest Supreme Court decision on indecency is good news for the religious groups. Now they don’t have to worry so much for a while; all of us who think opposite from their rhetoric have been dealt a painful blow, and it might take us many years to recover.

I’d Like Some More, Please

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 7:41 am

Another $75 billion for the banks is needed. Brilliant. Let’s give them $150 billion for good measure.

There are roughly 300 million citizens in America. $75 billion divided evenly among them is $250 per person.

But wait. Since the banking crisis began, the U.S. government has given out over $2 trillion to needy companies, many of them banks. So again, let’s do the math: $2 trillion (by the way, that’s 2 million times 1 million) divided by 300 million comes out to $6,666.67 per American.

Since we’ve “injected” this $2 trillion into “the banking system,” basically nothing has happened. I suppose the number of jobs lost is slowing, but there were still another half-million new unemployed people in April, so I don’t see what this amazing expenditure has provided us but a greater tax burden.

Suppose that instead we had given $6,500 to every American citizen? (Notice I used the word “citizen”; that’s another article for another day.) It’s theoretically possible that Americans would have been too afraid to spend any money, and instead would have shoved it under their mattresses; if that had happened, we’d be no worse off since that’s essentially what banks have done. But more likely, people would have spent like they’ve never spent before. $6,500 is a huge amount of money to most Americans, and people would have used that money to buy cars, pay down debt (including their mortgages), go on vacation if so inclined, and so on. This would put something like, let’s say, half that $2 trillion directly into the economy.

Of course, that could cause severe inflation, so it could be a dangerous move. But the amount of money that would have been directly given to businesses, small and large, and by extension banks in the form of cashflow would have been far greater than it is right now, so we might have been better off risking the inflation; besides, all us middle-class people know very well that prices aren’t going through the roof on things (check the price of lettuce, or milk, or flour lately?).

I think our political leaders suffer from the same misconception that most Americans do (so at least they seem to represent us in this way): the stock market and economy are controlled and fueled by banks. That is false. The stock market and economy are fueled by consumers. That is a free-market economy. If these things are controlled by banks, we are going down a very dark path.

It’s basic economics, but most of it don’t understand. If we buy less as an economy, prices go down and vice-versa. It’s important to note that the “economy” is now global. It’s not enough for America alone to change things these days; we have China, India, and Europe that influence things greatly as well. But if everyone understood principles and applied them, we could resolve this crisis.

Let’s take gasoline for example. Last year, it increased until the American national average was more than $4.00 per gallon. Then something amazing happened. People worldwide started using less gasoline, and the price of a barrel of oil dropped from about $150 to below $60, and gasoline dropped back below $2.00 for the first time in years. We can talk about speculators and their effect on crude oil prices if you want, but I believe we are responsible for price fluctuations rather than some group of greedy people somewhere who are trying to ruin us.

So, with gasoline below $2.00, what happened? The world, with its typically short memory, has gone back to the old times. We’re using more gasoline, and the prices have been steadily climbing for weeks. This will continue until people get wise to the way capitalism works again, and the prices will fall. Hopefully, we don’t end up in a depression from it.

But that’s the way a free-market economy works. We buy more stuff, and prices are raised so increased revenues can be used to make more, because the supply has increased. This also has the counter effect of decreasing the growth of demand, so companies can continue to meet that demand. When we buy less stuff, prices go down to encourage demand, and therefore, companies have to decrease cost; the easiest way to do that is with mass layoffs. If we spend more money, jobs are created and kept.

I realize there are an awful lot of newly-unemployed people out there; my wife is one of them. I’m not talking to them. I’m instead speaking to those of us who have as of yet been unaffected by the recession in this way. We should be finding ways that make sense for us to put our capital into the system and thereby create jobs. Of course, this would have been much easier if we’d all received $6,500 per person in each family.

Let’s not forget that it is the People who control the American and the world economy. This means all people: American, European, Asian, Australian, and African.  We are all in this vehicle together, and we’re letting a blindfolded idiot drive the car. It’s time we dropped that guy off at the next bus stop and took the wheel ourselves.

March 15, 2009

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 6:50 am

The New York Times has reported in an article dated March 14, 2009 (AIG Planning Huge Bonuses After $170 Billion Bailout) that A.I.G. employees in its Financial Products Group, the group largely responsible for the company’s collapse, must be paid a total sum of approximately $165 million in bonuses by March 15, in accordance with legal contracts.

Edward M. Libby, the government-appointed representative at A.I.G., informed Timothy F. Geitner, U.S. Treasury Secretary, last week that the bonuses were legally required to be paid. He further advised Mr. Geitner that if the government completely removed the ability to pay bonuses, the “best and brightest” talent could not be attracted to lead the company from the brink of financial ruin.

We hear a lot of talk about these “best and brightest” executives, who have collectively destroyed the greatest economy in the history of the world with their arrogance, incompetence, and greed. I’m sure I speak for most Americans when I say I’ve had enough.

I have a better idea, Mr. Libby: let’s refrain from attracting the “best and brightest” executives in the future; they’ve shown demonstrated unreliability. Instead, why don’t we try and attract some less-wealthy, apparently “average and moderately-intelligent” executives who won’t demand bonuses in excess of $3 million per quarter per person for posting record failure numbers that couldn’t be exceeded by the most uneducated, incompetent people in the United States? One could jest that a group of trained monkeys might be able to avoid backing subprime mortgages to the tune of several hundred billion dollars because it just doesn’t sound right and they’d have a funny feeling in their bellies while making the decisions.

Rather, let’s look to the upper-middle class, where we might find some recently unemployed people who are willing to work for A.I.G. – and other companies for that matter – for less than the previous group receive in bonuses per quarter. I’d be stunned if we didn’t find some really great people this way. And we might just have the added benefit of stumbling across someone (maybe one or two) with some intelligence, common sense, and a conscience.

February 24, 2009

Loyal Support for the President?

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 8:53 am

Maybe I am missing the memo, but the New York Times has reported in a recent article, Survey Reveals Broad Support for President, that a majority of 1,112 adults polled last week approve of Obama’s job thus far. I think he is trying, yes. But I definitely don’t approve.

Here’s what gets me: three-quarters of those polled, including 6 of 10 Republicans, believe that the President is working hard to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans, yet only 3 in 10 people say that Republicans are doing the same.

I will not say that Republicans are working hard with him, but I can’t say I blame them. I’d hardly call railing against them for two weeks attempting to mend the divide between the parties. On the contrary, Mr. Obama essentially bullied the Republican Party into signing a bill that many would call, at best, irresponsible, loaded with speculation about huge amounts of money dedicated to strange purposes. He then ignored all criticism of the bill, citing the Americans’ need for quick and decisive action, rather than explaining his beliefs in each and every line.

It’s likely that people are so worried about our futures, that we would accept any policy that the new, feel-good President proposes, regardless of its contents. Of course, most Americans never actually listen to the details; rather, they hear “I can help you!” and vote for that person, trusting anything he or she says thereafter.

When President Bush refused to explain himself, people called him a criminal, a thug, an arrogant man, et cetera. When Obama does it, he gets a 63 percent approval rating.

Somehow, I’ve been unwillingly caught on the boat to socialism. I’d like to get off, please.

February 16, 2009

Historic Statements Are Often Most Apropos

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 10:07 am

“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul” (George Bernard Shaw, Everybody’s Political What’s What?, 1944, ch. 30).

I cannot think of a more appropriate statement than this in today’s American political climate. It really says all there is to say on the matter.

February 10, 2009

Change We Can Believe In?

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 9:31 am

status-quo

As much as I didn’t want a Democrat in the White House, I am inclined to give our new president a chance. However, in his first three weeks, he has sorely disappointed me by apparently putting up a porkbarrel bill and then continually berating Republicans for failing to support it.

If his bill isn’t full of the supposed non-stimulus items, why isn’t he saying so? Instead, he seems to see fit to muscle the minority party into passing the bill.

I hope we get to a resolution soon, and I really hope that the president plans to deliver on his campaign promises – that he would be entirely different from all the other politicians out there. In the meantime, my rapidly rising dissatisfaction caused me to create an “obamicon” at http://obamiconme.pastemagazine.com/. This picture is the subject of this message.

February 7, 2009

A Mighty Recession?

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 5:30 pm
Tags: ,

Faced with the grim news that the U.S. lost 528,000 jobs in January (the largest number in one month since the Autumn of 1992), and the fact that our unemployment rate has risen to a striking 7.6%, I am, not surprisingly, crestfallen. However, one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of such an economic downturn at Corbin’s Corner today in West Hartford.

My wife and I traveled up to the area to visit Trader Joe’s, a semi-local grocery chain, and had to park halfway across the lot from the store. It was a madhouse. The West Farms Mall across the street was no less busy. I wonder if this is not a result of the U.S. Senate’s passing of the $728 billion stimulus last night, or if people in Connecticut aren’t feeling the pinch as badly as we are hearing.

Furthermore, I learned last evening that on Tuesday, February 3, Denny’s restaurants offered a free Grand Slam Breakfast. Given the huge lines at Denny’s that day, many regulars ended up visiting other breakfast restaurants in Southington that day, most notably the Pepper Pot on Center Street. Despite having several inches of snow, the Pepper Pot had one of its busiest days of the last months. I encourage Denny’s to continually stimulate the economy in such a way.

Moreover, gasoline prices have apparently risen for eight consecutive weeks, despite that crude oil hit a new low early this week in Asian trading. Oil and gasoline continue their enigmatic waltz.

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