Remote Control

Bernie Sanders

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.

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

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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