The Saturday Skinny: Are we Limiting Press Freedom in the Right Ways?

To round out my first weekly blog theme, I have chosen to prepare a short, contemplative post about the freedom of the press. Originally designed to protect traditional news outlets like daily papers, magazines, Television news broadcasts, and radio content from government censorship, the media if often referred to as the fourth branch of government, and in theory, serves a “watchdog” function to prevent government tyranny and to provide checks and balances against government corruption. With the media now rapidly expanding to include things like social media, entertainment, and a host of other publicly disseminated information, I want to take just a moment out of my Saturday morning to discuss the limits of press freedom. I do believe that there SHOULD be limits. I will even go so far as to say that the freedom of the press shouldn’t be a right, but is rather a privilege that can, and often is, abused. For that matter, I would even go so far as to say that we shouldn’t have Constitutional rights, but instead should have constitutional privileges. Rights are inalienable – privileges are not. For instance, if a convicted felon can lose his right to vote, then it really isn’t a right at all. It is a privilege to be lost. To draw the correlation, if the press does not fulfill its duty to serve the best interests of the people, then those members of the media should lose their “privilege” of free press. For the remainder of this post, I want to narrow my scope to discuss press freedom in the context of the entertainment industry. I don’t have to tell you that there are several restrictions on what entertainers can and cannot say on television, radio, and other mass mediums. But recently I’ve been asking myself the following question: Are we really censoring the right things? Below are three examples of how the U.S. entertainment industry is getting censorship wrong:

  1. Cursing – within my lifetime, I have noticed a significant relaxation in the about of “cursing” that appears to be acceptable to be included in cable and network entertainment prime time programming. There are still, however, some phrases that are censored in ways that are not only ineffective, but that just don’t make sense. For instance, if someone calls someone an “asshole” on television, the term is usually censored. But only half of it. “Ass” is completely acceptable, but when combined with the word “hole,” it seems to be problematic. So the solution to this problem? “Ass(bleep).” Not only is this completely ineffective, but it seems like the FCC is just a little (and by that I mean absurdly) misguided in what part of that phrase is the most offensive. Here’s another one for you: “God-damn it.” The solution to this inappropriate phrase? “(Bleep) Damn it.” Once again, anyone with a clue can fill in the blank, but more importantly than that, it seems like the concern is once again placed on the wrong part of this phrase.

 

  1. Nudity – America is ashamed of the human body. With very few exceptions (Kate Winslet’s single-breast exposure in Titantic being one of the more notable ones), most motion pictures that depict nudity other than a brief display of a person’s rear-end is automatically designated as Rated R. I bring this up not because I believe that NBC should start airing porn after America’s Got Talent, but because we remain over-sensitized to nudity while being under-sensitized to violence and “less graphic” forms of sexuality. A few years ago, a show appeared on a major network channel entitled “Swingtown.” It is about exactly what it sounds like: A group of neighbors who engaged in swinging – a lifestyle in which they have sex which each other’s spouses. There wasn’t any nudity that I recall, but there was plenty of moaning and glorification of promiscuity, which I argue is just as problematic for young viewers to be exposed to. More recently, shows such as “Mistresses” and “WifeSwap” seem to contribute to our society’s desensitization of sex more than any Playboy I’ve ever looked at.

 

  1. Violence – The media is saturated with it. One day when I was teaching a lecture on media law to some of my former students, I was explaining to them the legal difference between obscenity and indecency, two terms that refer exclusively to sexual content in the media. A student of mine raised her hand and asked the following question: “Why can something only be considered obscene or indecent if it sexual. What about the pictures of mutilated bodies that we see on the news and on the internet on a daily basis, and what about films and TV shows that feature more murders, tortures, and blood than you seen on the streets of Compton in a week?” I’m not usually caught off guard, but I was this time. I simply had to respond by saying “you make a great point.” And she did. The jury is still out whether media violence contributes to actual violence, but it seems like until more is known about media effects, we might be better off erring on the side of caution. We are, in my opinion, overly cautious about exposing our youth to sex and nudity, but much less concerned about exposing them to violence on the 6 o clock news and beyond.

If you like what I wrote, I encourage you to share this blog with your friends, colleagues, or anyone else who may find it interesting. If you don’t like what I write, then I INSIST that you comment, criticize, and put me in my place. Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

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4 thoughts on “The Saturday Skinny: Are we Limiting Press Freedom in the Right Ways?

  1. That was really well said. I too, believe there should be some limits on the press, although it’s rather complicated. They are the 4th branch of government, so it’s important that they show some integrity and hold up their end of the deal. Journalism is a critical component of democracy. However, they do tend to go for the dirty laundry, the fluff stuff, that nobody really needs to know, graphic and gratuitous sex and violence, and downright gossipy stories. Sometimes I wish we could issue them a driver’s license and revoke it when they report something false or engage in the politics or personal destruction. The media has incredible power and it’s a bit worrisome when they abuse it.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that the issue is rather complicated- and frankly, I don’t have all the answers. But one thing I do believe is that the press should serve the best interests of the people. By rhis, I mean that the press should not say what the people want to hear, but what they need to hear. The issue is that the press survives based on what people want to hear. So at a certain point, people need to stop being on concerned with fluff, and more concerned with what is important to the success of our society.

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  2. Limiting the freedom of the press is troubling to me even though I agree with much of what you say. I’m no academician, and certainly no scholar but it would scare me to see curbs put in place. They may start out as well-intentioned but at what point does well-intentioned become mal-intentioned? Or did I miss the point entirely, as usual.

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    • Thanks for the comment. You didn’t miss the point at all. I think we actually agree on most points regarding this issue. I too have reservations about restricting press freedom. At the same time, I think that some restrictions may be good as long as the legislation is narrow enough in scope so that the restrictions don’t set dangerous precedents. Also, the larger point I tried to make was that what it seems that we have our priorities wrong when it comes to what we do censor and what we don’t censor. For instance, to use an example from my post, the United States severely censors nudity, but they do not at all censor the insinuation and depiction of sexual behavior. I’ve seen sex scenes on TV that are more graphic than simply seeing a naked body. Now, I am not saying take sex scenes out of TV, but in depicting “non-nude” sex, a lot of things are left out, or indirectly censored. In the show “Mistresses,” for example, it depicts promiscuous sex. But promiscuity isn’t even the biggest problem. In that show, which is full of sex, it appears that it is set in a world in which condoms or other STD prevention measures do not even exist. So really what I am getting at is that what we should censor sex that doesn’t tell the whole whole story. Ironically, this means uncensoring nudity and the aspects of sex that the media keeps from public view.

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