From Cursing News Anchors to Baseball Players: When It’s OK to Swear on TV

And who gets to decide when it's not.

If you ask me, the greatest moment of Julius Genachowski’s soon-to-expire tenure as chairman of the FCC came on Saturday.

During the emotional pre-game ceremony at Fenway Park for the first Boston Red Sox home game since the Boston Marathon bombing, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz grabbed a microphone, thanked the city, the governor, the mayor and the police department, and then said, “this is our fucking city and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”

The game was broadcast live in Boston, as well as nationwide on the MLB Network, and that profanity went out, unbleeped, to a wide daytime audience that undoubtedly included quite a few children. Will Ortiz be facing fines or government sanction? Will the franchise or the TV network? Will this be one of those pointless battles that winds through the courts for many years?

No, it will not. Because Julius Genachowski, the outgoing FCC chairman, said so. And not after weeks of committee deliberations, but rather himself, on Twitter, that same day:

Genachowski seems to have concluded, wisely, that the people of Boston had seen and been through much worse things in the very recent past than an errant F-word, especially one delivered as part of a sentiment with which none of them could disagree.

Most Phillies fans watching Ortiz’s moment of televised, in-stadium cursing probably immediately thought of Chase Utley. The Phils second baseman, of course, blurted out “World Fucking Champions”—also on live TV during daylight hours—at the Phillies’ championship rally in 2008. Utley had another moment of on-camera profanity just a few months earlier, when microphones caught him reacting with an expletive when the Yankee Stadium crowd booed him prior to the All-Star Game.

The FCC reported the month after the World Series parade that it received 26 complaints from the public about “World Fucking Champions,” though there’s no record of Utley or any broadcast entity being fined in relation to the incident. Meanwhile Utley, an athlete often inexplicably criticized for saying anything memorable, apparently learned his lesson from the one time he did.

In my capacity as a reporter on the technology sector, I’ve seen Genachowski speak in person on a couple of occasions and he’s an impressive fellow, although most observers would say he’s had a mixed record in carrying out his stated goal of a “free and open Internet.” One word I’ve never heard Genachowski utter, however, is “decency.”

It hasn’t always been that way. During Republican administrations, the FCC has tended to strongly pursue its mandate to punish “indecency” on the airwaves. The FCC’s serial sanctioning of Howard Stern over the years has been well-documented.

During the Bush years specifically, the FCC cracked down on broadcast networks for everything from Cher and Nicole Ritchie dropping an F-bomb a piece on the Billboard Music Awards to the infamous Janet Jacksonwardrobe malfunction” incident in 2004. Bush even signed a law, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which increased fines for “the broadcast of obscene, indecent, or profane language”; the law’s sponsors included a veritable who’s who of all the worst people in Congress: Rick Santorum! Joe Lieberman! George Allen! And, of course, Lindsey Graham!

When I interviewed Kevin Martin, Bush’s second FCC chairman, shortly before he stepped down in early 2009, he defended the policy of decency fines, because “I think it’s important and the government has a role in protecting children.” He also suggested the government could play a role in discouraging images of smoking and unhealthy food from appearing on TV programs. For all the flack Michelle Obama takes over her anti-obesity initiatives, she’s never proposed anything like that.

Last year, the U.S, Supreme Court threw out most fines and sanctions against broadcasters for inadvertent on-air profanities, and just this month the FCC opened a period of public comment on whether it should limit enforcement of indecency to only the “most egregious” cases.

It’s about time. In our culture, we care way too much about cursing, even as the news headlines every day show us again and again that there are much worse things to worry about. At least this week when North Dakota TV news anchor A.J. Clemente pulled a Ron Burgundy on his first day, opening the newscast with a couple of obscenities, he was fired by his own station, not by the government.
So good for Julius Genachowski. It’s about time to get the government out of language enforcement.