BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. This week, President Bush and Vice President Cheney unintentionally helped Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS win a court case against the Federal Communications Commission. President Bush made his contribution at last year's G8 Summit when an open microphone caught him using a not-for-prime-time word. PRESIDENT BUSH: See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] and it's over. BOB GARFIELD: The FCC calls that a "fleeting expletive" uttered during a live taping and broadcast unintentionally. A federal court in New York Monday ruled that the networks cannot be held responsible for fleeting expletives. The case centered on specific incidences involving awards-show gaffes by Bono, Nicole Richie and Cher.
But the court actually cited President Bush and Vice President Cheney's infamous use of expletives, saying that it is unrealistic to pretend that these words are not a part of everyday speech.
A victory for the networks? Yes. But is the culture losing out? The Parents Television Council works to keep expletives and other obscenity off the airwaves. Its president, Tim Winter, says he is disappointed by the ruling.
TIM WINTER: We think it's irresponsible for the networks to be suing for the right to use the F word in front of children, which is exactly what this case centered on. What they said was that the rule that the FCC had been trying to implement, which was not allowing the F word to be used when children are in the audience, before 10 P.M., they said, no, that runs afoul of the First Amendment.
And we believe that their ruling runs afoul of almost 80 years of jurisprudence on ownership of the public airwaves and over the indecency laws that have in force for many decades. BOB GARFIELD: As a father of three, believe me, I can argue both sides of this question. The coarsening of the culture, the defining of deviancy downward is often quite disturbing. But it seems to me that being spontaneously rude on live TV, or even rude with malice aforethought, shouldn't be actually against the law, and certainly not for the broadcaster.
How do you justify fining a network for something that it didn't actually do but just merely, you know, inadvertently broadcast? TIM WINTER: In the cases that were ruled upon by the court, you had two awards shows, which are watched by millions of children. The TV networks' ratings for those programs deem them appropriate for family viewing.
When you hear an expletive aired on an awards show, and then again the next year, the same awards show, a different celebrity utters the same word, at some point in time this no longer becomes fleeting. It becomes a pattern.
And I think the networks not only didn't discourage their celebrities from doing that, I think there is some sort of tacit encouragement, that they want the stars to be edgy because they are looking for young teen audiences that the advertisers want most.
BOB GARFIELD: Before we go any further, I just want to establish your bona fides on this subject. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that you're some sort of hard-core conservative Republican religious right public scold, but you got into this debate from another place. Tell me about that. TIM WINTER: I am none of the things that you just described. Well, public scold - I guess it's up [LAUGHS] to the public to decide. I am an activist. I'm also a long-time – 20 plus years in the entertainment industry, so I grew up career-wise in the industry.
As a father of a 9-year-old daughter, it became abundantly apparent to me several years ago just how impactful the media was on small children, regardless of how diligent a parent is at protecting what their children are watching.
I'm not a conservative. I know that this sounds like the type of message you would hear from somebody who is. And this is a universal issue. And, again, I think that the law as it was intended to be interpreted by the FCC allowed a balance between those who have children, those who don't, those who want four letter words on television, those who don't. And I think what the court has done is tilt that balance unfairly. BOB GARFIELD: Tim, I'm not sure the court even considered this question, but the fact is, most Americans get their TV via cable or satellite. As far as they're concerned, a broadcast station is just another channel on their remote control. And the channels that don't originate as broadcasts are under no obligation to observe the rules that you've been discussing.
If the public can't tell the difference between broadcast and cable, why hold broadcasters to a different standard? TIM WINTER: Well, there are 20 million households that do not subscribe to cable because they don't want to have that kind of material coming into their home. You have a disparity between a network that the public, through the FCC, hands a license to this network and says, use public property for free. They, I believe, have a different standard than, for instance, a network that says, you know what? - I'm going to try to market to a consumer so that they can intentionally subscribe and receive my network. BOB GARFIELD: Do you really have any evidence that the majority of the public is substantially offended when the F bomb gets dropped on the air? Or, you know, in this day and age, is it just, you know, water off a duck's back? TIM WINTER: Every major poll across the country - not just of PTC members, not just of people who might happen to go to church three times a week - the overwhelming sense is there are certain words at certain times that should not be broadcast on television.
The sense of the nation is overwhelming on this, and I think that was demonstrated last year when the Congress voted to increase the fines for broadcasters who break the indecency law. It passed unanimously in the Senate. Unanimously. It passed in the House of Representatives 379 to 35.
When if [have] 479 members of Congress in both houses ever agreed on anything? The reason is they know that this is the sense of the nation. Then again, I think it's unfortunate that two judges in New York City have decided that, no, the “F word” in front of kids in these broadcast shows is okay. BOB GARFIELD: Tim, I thank you very much for joining us. TIM WINTER: Thank you for having me here today. BOB GARFIELD: Tim Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council. He joined us from Los Angeles. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]