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Remote Control

BY Sen. Bernie Sanders

Apparently the right-wing ideologues believe they know best what programs Americans should be allowed to purchase.

In his 2004 inaugural address, President Bush spoke repeatedly about the need to bring freedom and liberty to the world. In fact, he was so focused on the concept that he referenced the word “freedom” a whopping 27 times during the 21-minute speech. I’m happy the president is embracing the concept of freedom. Now if we could only get him to start practicing what he preaches.

Since his inauguration address, President Bush and his right-wing colleagues in Congress have launched a full-scale effort to limit and control the programming Americans are able to see and hear over the airwaves and the Internet. In short, they’re going after your computer, your radio and your remote control.

In March, the House passed legislation to dramatically raise “indecency” fines for broadcast television imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to $500,000. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, heralded the high fines, saying, “This legislation makes great strides in making it safe for families to come back into their living room.”

Emboldened by this success, conservative leaders like Barton and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) are threatening to go even further. For the first time, they want to apply indecency standards to cable, to satellite and even to the Internet.

“We put restrictions on the over-the-air signals,” Stevens, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in March, while speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters annual state leadership conference. “Cable is a greater violator in the indecency arena. … I think we can put restrictions on cable itself. At least I intend to do my best to push that.”

And Barton told reporters, “In the foreseeable future, you are going to see a convergence [of standards]. I stand by that. … The impact [of indecency programming] is going to be the same in the home. It’s irrelevant what the ownership or the origination of it is.”

If Stevens and Barton have their way, it means goodbye to “The Sopranos,” goodbye to Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” goodbye to the boys of “South Park,” goodbye to “Deadwood,” goodbye to Dave Chappelle and goodbye to many other shows enjoyed by millions. Faced with strict FCC censorship rules, all of these programs will be removed from television altogether, substantially rewritten, or banished to late night.

Let’s keep in mind that these are not shows broadcast on public airwaves but rather on cable programs that consumers select and pay for. Apparently the right-wing ideologues believe they know best what programs Americans should be allowed to purchase and view. If these regulations are imposed on paid cable and satellite networks, it will have a chilling impact on freedom of expression in America. Today, they are going after Howard Stern and Tony Soprano. Tomorrow, who will be their target? Will it become “indecent” to criticize the president?

These effects have already been seen on broadcast television. Given the looser rules governing cable and satellite, the change to paid programming will be even more drastic under FCC oversight. Controversial or cutting-edge shows will become increasingly rare as programmers become more and more limited in the types of topics they are willing to explore and the kinds of guests they will invite.

Sadly, this is not the only effort currently under way by the right to determine what material is appropriate for the American public to see, hear and read. The effort to censor cable becomes even more ominous when viewed as part of the larger attempt by the Bush administration and its allies to limit public discussion of minority opinions.

In recent years, the Republican leadership has used unprecedented measures to crush dissent in Congress. During the recent passage of the Bankruptcy Bill, for example, no opposition amendments were allowed on the floor of the House—effectively silencing public debate of the bill.

Perhaps the most blatant example of intolerance for dissenting viewpoints, however, comes from Bush himself, who is currently traveling the country holding “town meetings” on his Social Security privatization plan. Despite the fact that these ostensibly public meetings are paid for by taxpayers, American citizens who disagree with Bush are not allowed to attend.

It is in this context of an overall attack on dissenting opinions that the effort to censor cable and satellite TV becomes truly frightening. This is not simply about cleaning up offensive content; it is about the extreme right wing pushing to limit the free exchange of ideas. The time has come for all Americans who love freedom to let the government know that they don’t want Uncle Sam turning into Big Brother.

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington, Vt., by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont's at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Read more at his website.

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