Both Time and Newsweek magazines are giggling at the Supreme Court oral arguments on the fleeting-TV-profanity case of FCC vs. Fox Television Stations. The court is considering if it has the authority to regulate obscene language on the public airwaves.
Time noticed Justice Antonin Scalia joking that "Bawdy jokes are OK, if they are really good." Newsweek reported that Justice John Paul Stevens wanted to know if "dung" was a dirty word.
The magazines that aspire to define history saw this Supreme Court argument as only good for a laugh. Maybe it was. After all, Barack Obama will soon be president, and Hollywood’s heavy investment in his presidential campaign will surely pay great dividends in moral laxity at the FCC and silence in Obama’s liberal bully pulpit.
But in the search for cute quotes to illustrate their dismissive tones, both magazines skipped the defining cultural exchange of that hour. When Justice Stevens asked if there were changes in community standards over the last 30 years, if society had grown more tolerant of curse words, Carter Phillips, the profanity-favoring attorney for Fox, proclaimed: "I believe that society is significantly more tolerant of these words today than it was 30 years ago." Justice Scalia replied: "Do you think your clients have had anything to do with that?"
The answer is, of course, self-evident. There is no greater cultural influence on impressionable youth than the entertainment industry. Both a bucket of scientific studies and plain common sense validate this, but Phillips, being the kind of clever lawyer who can seem plausible as he expresses the completely ridiculous, rejected any responsibility: "In the scheme of things, probably very, very little to do with that compared to the way the language is used. Go to a baseball game, Justice Scalia. You hear these words every time you go to a ball game."
Justice Scalia sensibly argued to the senseless Mr. Phillips that there is a great difference between broadcast television and a comparatively private utterance to people within earshot at a stadium. Scalia said he doesn’t agree that the public is more tolerant of profanity, just more resigned to it. He was idealistic enough to say that television should have a higher aim, of living up to a linguistic standard of what is "normal in polite company."
The whole notion of "polite company" seems completely archaic (and even anti-competitive) in the arena of today’s manufacturers of "entertainment." Scalia declared TV shows were producing a "coarsening of manners," but obviously, Hollywood’s hired legal guns see the simple idea of manners as a red herring. They believe the real principle to be revered in law and in custom is the constitutional right to curse on the public airwaves, even if the public, overwhelmingly, objects to it.
A new study by the Parents Television Council of the trend in profanity from the 1998 season to the 2007 season really illustrates the degree to which Hollywood has deluged the popular culture with cursing. The F-word aired only one time on prime time broadcast TV in all of 1998 — yet it appeared 1,147 times on prime time broadcast TV in 2007, on 184 different episodes. The S-word, which appeared only two times in 1998, aired 364 times in 2007 on 133 different programs.
Once "tolerance" is assumed, inundation follows.
The profanity virus is also moving earlier and earlier into prime time. In 1998, no shows on broadcast television aired the S-word at 8 or 9 p.m. By 2007, the S-word appeared in 73 shows at 8 p.m., and 52 shows at 9 o’clock. In 2007, 52 percent of the programs that contained the F-word and 55 percent of the programs that contained the S-word aired during the family hour of 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central. In 2007, the F-word aired in 96 shows during the 8 p.m. hour.
Hollywood’s lawyers are also arguing against the FCC’s legalistic definition of profanity (and common sense) when they suggest that when people use the F-word, it doesn’t always have a sexual connotation. When Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the sexual charge of the F-word is what gives the word its shock value, Phillips bizarrely claimed: "I suppose you can say it, but I don’t understand on what basis. There is no empirical support for that." This caused Scalia to tickle the audience again, saying people "don’t use ‘gollywoggles’ instead of the F-word."
This whole argument may have been ended up being politically unnecessary, but it was nonetheless culturally instructive. It demonstrated that Hollywood’s legal hired guns could perform even more shamelessly than Hollywood itself.