A Progressive Framework for Fighting Indecency

For the past two weeks, I've been writing about Clear Channel and its use of racist hate speech as a business model. The hook has been the on-air comments of Star, the former morning host on several Clear Channel stations, including in Philadelphia and New York.

I worked with a team of other media activists to formulate a response: Hate: The Clear Channel Game. See the press release we distributed. We've received over 200 comments from the site and they're still coming in.

Some of our colleagues have been resistant to the idea of pushing on this issue, raising objections that merit close consideration. This is a major question of strategy: Can we have a progressive framework for fighting indecency?

It's an important time to consider this. The Senate just passed a bill multiplying tenfold the fines the FCC can levy on indecent broadcasters – raising the cap from $32,500 to $325,000. With the blessing of the Parents Television Council, the Senate version seems destined to become law. (The House version was harsher.)

The fear among community broadcasters is that so-called indecency fines of any size are only meaningful to locally-owned stations. As I explained in an earlier post, the government would have to fine Clear Channel about 100 times under the new limits just to recoup the money it sent to the company in the form of a tax refund. For a community station, $300k is the whole ball game.

So that's a real fear. But the passage of the bill – by unanimous consent in the Senate – shows that it's not a question of "can" we have such a framework. We must. We cannot ignore this issue away. Congress was going to pass that bill whether our little group sent out a press release or not. Doing nothing, especially in the face of such egregious on-air statements, hands a valid issue and a willing constituency over to the right, which sees remedies in "corporate responsibility," "protecting children," and censorship. Why cede all of that ground?

One concern with our action on this issue was that, if the government could restrict content, "our kind" (presumably meaning political speech) of content would be the first to be regulated. That is wrong on the one hand, and misses the point on the other.

Empirically, "indecency" is already the first kind of content the government would restrict; in the alliance between capitalists and fundamentalists that control the government, content is much more of an issue for the latter. Second, "our kind" is already regulated off the airwaves by the ownership and licensing process. There is definitely a price to pay for seditious speech, but the penalties are not likely to come in the form of fines from the FCC.

So we attempted to frame the issue as one of ownership, with license redistribution as a solution. (Please remember the phrase license redistribution and use it when talking about a remedy for Clear Channel and concentrated broadcast licensing.) This analysis meets the criteria of (a) being accurate: Clear Channel and its corporate competitors really do use hate, sexism, and sensationalism to make money; and (b) supporting our goal of community-defined media.

Another criticism of our effort was the belief that someone should be allowed to be an idiot, even in public. I hope no one thinks we would be doing this if we thought Star was just some doofus punk. Or if he was on a community radio station. This is Clear Channel's fault and we felt obligated to call them on it.

We do not support censorship or fines as a remedy. We support community-defined media and license redistribution. This is not an issue of free speech and it is certainly beyond the bounds of humor. Power99/105 is not a public forum – it is an unaccountable corporate outlet in a (false) zero sum game of spectrum allocation overseen by a flawed agency.

I understand the liberal urge to let everyone have their say, but we cannot let Clear Channel abuse our airwaves in this manner without any protest.

Out of a fear that this might get twisted back on us, some advocate that we take no action whatsoever. That's called doing your enemy's bidding. We have to assume that we will be able to defend ourselves if this gets twisted back on us. Otherwise, we commit to a life on the defensive and seal our ultimate defeat.
Someone suggested that it would have been better to organize a protest. That would have taken a lot more energy in the short term, reached only a geographically-limited group of people, and left less of an infrastructure for action in the long term. It also would have been much harder to connect such an action to the issue of ownership.

Plus, what would have been the remedy such a protest would have called for? A contribution to a foundation? (Actually, we should have immediately put out a list of foundations for Clear Channel to donate to, if only because we knew they were going to have to greenwash this at some point – not that they have, yet.)

Our move, though it took a concerted effort by a number of volunteers working through the weekend, was still a low-input/high-output effort. Many people were legitimately pissed off about what had been broadcast on their airwaves. We were able to provide them with a productive outlet that connected their immediate reaction to the root cause: concentrated licensing.

Now we have 200 more people ready to support challenges to Clear Channel's licenses and reforms to spectrum policy and broadcast licensing that will bring more community voices to the fore. On those ultimate goals, everyone seems to agree. Let's keep trying on our tactics.

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