Vol. 2, Issue 13, March 30, 2004
FCC Fines NPR for Use of Word "Kerry"
National Public Radio (NPR) has become the latest media outlet to receive a fine from the FCC for language considered "indecent." The event has directly led to the reassignment of longtime Morning Edition anchor Bob Edwards.
"We had no idea that the ripples from the Superbowl incident would have such far-reaching repercussions," said Mark Handley, chairman of the NPR foundation. "But we simply don't have the budget to cope with these fines."
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent United States government agency, directly responsible to Congress. It is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. Since the Superbowl, when there was a significant national outcry over the "wardrobe failure" of an entertainer, the FCC has been aggressively cracking down on violations.
"The problem is that there are no hard and fast guidelines in place," said Manfred Stokes, professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. "The FCC does not provide a list of forbidden words, but makes determinations on a case-by-case basis in response to complaints filed. This gives the Commission a degree of latitude which, it is now clear, has become extraordinarily broad."
At issue in this case was the gratuitous use of the name of the likely democratic candidate for president, John Kerry. In a "Morning Edition" broadcast on March 19, NPR news anchor Bob Edwards used the name twelve times in the course of a half-hour. A complaint was filed with the FCC alleging that "John Kerry is an obscenity and an offense to America." Apparently, the FCC agreed.
"NPR was fined $500,000 for each use of the name "Kerry" - a total of $6 million. That's a substantial chunk of their operating budget. They had to cut a deal with the FCC and get rid of Edwards in order to survive," noted Stokes. "It's a good thing they didn't decide to fine NPR for the word "John" as well, or they would really have been in trouble."
The FCC fines, and Edwards' subsequent departure, pose a serious dilemma for the Democratic party.
"On the one hand, we obviously don't want to be heading into an election with our candidate's name being censored from the airwaves," said Trent Gerrins, an anonymous source at the Democratic National Committee. "But on the other hand, it's political suicide right now to oppose the FCC's crackdown on indecency. We're thinking John may just have to go by his first name for the time being."
It has also not escaped the attention of observers that the chair of the FCC, Michael K. Powell, is the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell and was nominated chair of the FCC by President Bush.
"I'd call for an investigation, but I couldn't afford it if the FCC were to determine that my name constitutes an obscenity," said Stokes. "It could be the end of my career. Now, you guys aren't going to use my name in print, right?"