WSJ Article on FCC Indecency Complaints

by on May 19, 2006 · 2 comments

Wall Street Journal reporter Amy Schatz has an important story on B1 of the paper today providing further evidence of how a handful of media activists groups–and the one in particular–have co-opted the FCC’s broadcast indecency complaint process for the own ends. Schatz notes that the Parents Television Council (PTC) was responsible for the vast majority of complaints against a single CBS program “Without a Trace,” which the FCC recently slapped with a record $3.6 million fine in March.

The WSJ filed a FOIA request to examine the complaints for that program and found that “all but three appeared to originate as computer-generated form letters (from the PTC).” In other words, virtually every complaint was identical and originated with the PTC’s website. “Only 2% of the people who filed complaints, or about 135, added personal comments,” Schatz found.

These results are consistent with the findings from my paper, “Examining the FCC’s Complaint-Driven Broadcast Indecency Enforcement Process.” In that paper, I noted the influence of the PTC on the indecency complaint process and showed how the organization is essentially “stuffing the (complaint) ballot box.”

Indeed, my study reveals that the FCC now measures indecency complaints differently than all other types of complaints. In so doing, it permits a process whereby indecency complaints appear to be artificially inflated relative to other types of complaints.

How did this happen? In recent years the FCC has quietly and without major notice made two methodological changes to its tallying of broadcast indecency complaints, both changes urged upon the FCC by a single advocacy group–the Parents Television Council–targeting broadcast indecency:

* On July 1, 2003, the agency began tallying each computer-generated complaint sent to the FCC by any advocacy group as an individual complaint, rather than as one complaint as had been done previously. The advocacy group benefiting from that change (the PTC) had challenged the FCC to make the change by June 30th and boasted later that it was responsible for the FCC’s redirection, citing reassurances of FCC commissioners.

* In the first quarter of 2004–the time when the Super Bowl incident with Janet Jackson occurred–the FCC began counting complaints multiple times if the individual sent the complaint to more than one office within the FCC. This change, which had the capability of increasing by a factor of 5 or 6 or 7 the number of complaints recorded, was noted in a footnote of that quarter’s FCC Quarterly Report. The footnote acknowledged that “[t]he reported counts may also include duplicate complaints or contacts…”

Again, both these changes were pushed by the PTC. For many years, the PTC has pressured the FCC to change their methodology to give greater weight to their computer-generated e-mail complaint campaigns in particular. It appears their efforts have paid off. The FCC is now imposing record new fines and Congress has just passed legislation authorizing a ten-fold increase in the level of the fines that the FCC can impose in the future.

I encourage you to read my study for more details and today’s WSJ article for additional evidence of these disturbing developments. Bottom line: These FCC indecency complaint tallies cannot be trusted.

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