Mr. State Trooper, please don't stop me ...

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Freedom of expression won a significant victory yesterday when a federal appeals panel struck down the government policy that allows stations and networks to be fined if they broadcast shows containing obscene language, here.

The thought-police faction at the FCC think the country needs to be protected from the accidental exclamation of an obscenity. Apparently these people live in places where never is heard a discouraging word, even when say, stubbing one's toe on a child's toy in the middle of the night while getting up to get the kid his or her Nth glass of water. And if the child -- or even the adult, since the FCC made no distinction between viewer times -- did happen to hear such a word, they would be so damaged for life they might likely never recover. (And it's not true, as some gossip sites have reported, that Mr. Cheney told the justices to "Go f**k themselves. Actually, I hear he shot them in the face.)

Two short points:

1) Most of the alleged consumer anger about so-called "obscenity" in prime-time television is part of a ginned-up Potemkin production. An enterprising reporter for Mediaweek noted that according to the FCC's own records, 99.8 percent of the complaints in 2003 were filed by a single right-wing pressure group, the Parents Television Council (PTC), a conservative activist group founded by L. Brent Bozell III, who also serves as president of the far-right Media Research Center. Despite its tiny numbers and ideological extremism, the PTC has harnessed technology it calls an Entertainment Tracking System which logs "every incident of sexual content, violence, profanity, disrespect for authority and other negative content," and includes "even those minor swears," its staffers proudly explain. The PTC also claims an email list of 125,000 "online members," and its website offers complaint form letters and streaming video clips of TV episodes so that visitors can watch, find them offensive and then, with a mouse-click, send off an outraged letter. In 2004, when, in response to viewer complaints, the FCC levied its largest TV fine ever -- $1.2 million, against Fox for an episode of the reality show Married by America, featuring strippers covering themselves in whipped cream -- the commission said the broadcast had generated 159 letters of complaint. But a Freedom of Information Act request designed to get copies of these letters yielded mail from just 23 separate individuals, with a full twenty one of them using one of Bozell's pre-printed complaint forms.

2) Liberals can -- and should, in my view -- make a bigger deal about the exploitation of violence on television, particularly violence against women, which is all too often celebrated or at least winked at. Without calling for censorship, I think we should shun those who produce this kind of cultural pollution. Television -- including television news, by the way -- is far more violent than real life and the false impressions it creates and permissions it implicitly offers do real damage to the social fabric of our society. Liberals need to find their voice on this issue, without worrying about strengthening the bluenoses or offending our Hollywood allies. (Our Hollywood allies should be leading this effort, in fact, and shunning those in their community who get rich on such imagery, since it is they who are personally tarnished by this brush.)

My mishap in New Hampshire on Sunday night has left me with a couple of problems and a couple of lessons. The first problem, establishing my innocence in court or else paying a fine, is a considerable inconvenience but not in any significant sense a big deal. The second problem, the damage done to my reputation by false reports of what took place is, in fact, a big deal, at least to me, but almost impossible to redress. The way much of the media work now -- driven by tabloid gossip when not by ideology -- combine to blow up CNN's original badly sourced and hastily written report into literally hundreds of equally badly sourced gossip items, all written by people who had no contact whatever with any of the people involved. (There were no witnesses save myself and the police. And aside from CNN, whom I had to track down myself [and The Nation], I've yet to see a single published report yet where the reporter in question actually asked me what happened.)

When I became the fodder for the gossip sites a month or so ago, I went to some lengths to try to correct the record -- again, because I value my reputation. I did not understand at the time most of these places -- including some reporters working at allegedly reputable publications -- do not much care about accuracy and felt no responsibility to correct the false information they disseminate. So all I did was feed the fire and make things worse. Whatever disagreements I have with Mark Halperin and John Harris' renedering of the dynamics of the media/political miasma they describe in The Way to Win, they were right about one thing: It is a "Freak Show," and Matt Drudge is indeed king of this world.

So this time, I see there's no point in running around trying to correct the record beyond explaining as best as I can what took place and leaving it at that as I did here. Trying to keep up with false and malicious allegations in this world is a mug's game. "Tit for tat" disminishes the "tatter" no matter how outrageous the original "tit," if I might coin a phrase. So, as much as it offends my nature personally, I have no choice but to let all of this crap wash over me until the mob loses interest and gloms onto something else. I do want to thank those bloggers who offered their sites up for an opportunity to clear up CNN's originally false rendition of events, and also -- this may surprise some people -- Chris Matthews, who gave me the opportunity last night to explain, briefly, how this mess originated. (The video of that is here.)

The two useful impressions it leaves for me are these:

1) I want to reiterate yesterday's point: that every privileged, upper-middle class American ought to get arrested once in his or her life. It's impossible to imagine the feeling of being driven in a squad car, cuffed behind your back, feeling yourself to be innocent but with no idea of what awaits you, until it happens. It's something that I imagine is taken as a given by powerless segments of our population and has to color everything about the way people view civic authority. I know it now does mine.

2) Al Gore's argument in The Assault on Reason regarding the trivialization of traditional definitions of news has a relevant correlary here: When there's no clear demarcation between "news" and "gossip," then not only are discussions of genuinely important issues crowded out by diversionary nonsense (at best), but the quality of all reporting suffers. Ever since the Clinton/Lewinsky scandals, reputable news organizations have felt empowered to go ahead with reports that they, themselves, could not verify. The New York Times' Judy Miller problem demonstrated the danger of this tendency in its most extreme form. But the practice is rampant and its injection into our media's bloodstream has spread the disease almost everywhere. The old system certainly had it flaws -- and the corrective abilities of the blogosphere to fix the mistakes and machinations of the MSM have no greater champion than yours truly -- but this problem of our collective inability to distinguish between good information and bad has the potential to crowd out much of what is most valuable in a free press and the lifeblood of our democracy.

OK, that's all, I'm hoping ...

Kudos to the reporters and editors of The Wall Street Journal news pages for seeking to save themselves and the honor of their company with stories like this one about Rupert Murdoch's distant relationship to journalistic integrity.

Photo of the day (adults only, please).

Eric R. gets shrill on the subject of "vote fraud":

This is the real fraud of American democracy -- not too much voting, but too little. To make it a priority that fewer people vote is madness -- if it isn't anti-democratic partisan activism meant to thwart the will of the citizenry.

And from our sponsors:

O'Reilly: Man with TB acted on "secular-progressive" values, "put[ting] his own welfare above everything and everybody else"

On the June 1 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, discussing the recent news that attorney Andrew Speaker traveled by airline while infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of tuberculosis, host Bill O'Reilly asserted that the "the story comes down to ... philosophy of life." O'Reilly explained: "Traditional-values people put others on a par with themselves. ... Secular progressives put themselves above all others. That philosophy says, 'Me first, then I'll worry about you.' As a nation, the USA has been successful embracing the traditional point of view. But today, that's being challenged. And this TB case is a great example." He added: "Did Speaker put his own welfare above everything and everybody else? You bet he did."

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Lou Cabron
Hometown: San Francisco, CA

Should eHarmony be forced to offer online match-making to gays and lesbians if they don't want to? It looks like the market is already sorting that out -- with some fierce and funny attacks on eHarmony's position! (Here.)

It's a beautiful thing to see a company launch a $10 million series of TV ads attacking their competitor for discriminating against gays and lesbians!

Name: Brian Geving
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

For me, the debate last night was much more exciting than the previous debate, with plenty of blows back and forth and Gravel and Kucinich landing punches when the others got within range. I liked the format and the questions from the audience, but John Edwards made a huge error that I haven't seen covered by the MSM.

As a gay man, I can respect that candidates for president might disagree with me on gay-rights issues, and especially regarding civil-marriage rights, but I expect them to make that decision based upon the facts and not be swayed by right-wing talking points. Unfortunately, as much as I like and respect John Edwards, he failed that test last night.

When responding to a question about whether he would support gay marriage, he stated that he thought that the states should make that decision and the federal government shouldn't be involved, and he thinks it's wrong to tell churches who they can and cannot marry.

I just stared at my television in disbelief saying "No, John, No." I can't believe that someone so smart wouldn't realize that it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to force churches to marry gay people, and that mixing religion into the gay marriage debate only muddies the issue for many Americans. This is a typical religious-right talking-point and I was extremely disappointed that John Edwards fell for it. I've been tremendously impressed by John Edwards until now, but I cannot support someone for President who doesn't understand the constitution, especially when he's a lawyer.

Name: John B
Hometown: Des Moines, IA

I've noticed the tendency of conservatives to suddenly disavow GW Bush as discussed here and certainly agree that it's a complete fraud. Conservatism is defined as "winning" in the minds of its most ardent devotees. Therefore Reagan was conservative because he won, GWB isn't because his administration is a train wreck. The thing is at this point it doesn't much matter. Conservatives have worked hard to tie GW, the war in Iraq, xenophobia, destruction of the rights and wages of lowly workers, destruction of the environment, opposition to abortion (along with most of the scientific world) and a bunch of other stuff into a cohesive package. No matter that many of these subgroups are inherently at odds with each other, the GOP PR offensive has been entirely successful in creating a product which is now repugnant to much of the American people. It's their big tent, if the Democrats can just do their job properly the conservative can go camp in the wilderness ... for a long, long time.

Name: David Shaffer
Hometown: Harleysville, PA

Dr. A --

I don't usually watch the Sunday talkies, but circumstances had me in my easy chair Sunday morning with nothing better to do, so...

I was watching "This Week," and the round table panel was discussing the Repub candidates and the possibility of Fred Thompson's entry in the race. (BTW, who does Sam Donaldson thinks he's fooling with that combover? I mean, seriously.) Anyway, one of the talking heads opined that what the Republican Party wants is another Ronald Reagan. It seems that the problem with the current crop is that they're not like Reagan, and the appeal of Thompson is that he might be. I think this might not be a bad thing for the Dems; while the Repubs may want another Reagan, I'm not sure the rest of the country does. Reagan's appeal (if you can call it that) was his ideological purity and conviction. In that sense, Shrub is Reagan Lite (all the conviction and half the competence of our regular Reagan!). After the ideologically-driven train wreck that the Bush administration has been, I'm not sure that ideological purity is going to have a lot of traction. What this country needs is a competent, honest president, not another Reagan.

Name: Greg Costello
Hometown: LIC, Queens

To paraphrase Debs:

... And I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and Eric Alterman is in prison, I am not free ...

What? They let you out? Cool, that means I'm free!

Fight da power ...

Name: David Rudd
Hometown: Washington DC

Free Mumia

Free Leonard Peltier

Stop Inconveniencing Eric Alterman

Name: Rick Kot
Hometown: New York, New York

Here comes the story of the Alterman,
The man the authorities want to falter, man
For somethin' that he never done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The pundit of the world.

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