One slightly curious aspect of the trial coverage over the last few days – it was one of the few times in the US you could get to hear someone say “motherfucker” live on the television during the day.
David Bauder, the media writer at the Associated Press, has had a look at the likelihood that news networks could end up with a fine for broadcasting the obscenities as they were used in video clips shown in the Senate chamber.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits broadcasters from airing indecent or profane content between the hours of 6am and 10pm, when children could reasonably be expected to be in the audience.
There’s no exemption for news channels in the rules – though in practice enforcement is unlikely. The first requirement for FCC action is getting a complaint from the public, which would lead the government body to open an investigation. There have been some complaints, an agency spokesman said on Friday.
Repeated obscenities were shouted by members of the pro-Trump mob as they moved toward and inside the US Capitol that day. They included a chant of “fuck the blue,” directed at police officers, and other swear words as the crowd became more confrontational and violent.
Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University said “The FCC doesn’t want to get anywhere near what would be considered political censorship.”
News executives who aired the language this week argued that it would be wrong to edit language being used on the floor of the US Senate. In their defense they will point to the fact that many networks bleeped out the offending language when repeating videos later, although they could not intercept the language when it was being broadcast live.
The FCC fined ABC and Fox in 2012 after they aired obscenities blurted out during an awards show, but the supreme court threw the action out, saying the networks could not have anticipated the language. Networks will argue the same thing with the impeachment trial.
The FCC received complaints in 2018 after news programs aired stories about Trump referring to some African and Latin American nations as “shithole countries,” but did not take enforcement action.
Given the explicitness of the language used this week, during daytime hours, Levinson said he believes it’s a watershed moment in broadcast standards. “The fact that this language was put out there,” he says, “is a very important step forward in terms of freedom of expression.”
Bauder reminds us that we can thank the late comic George Carlin for the rules. When his famous routine, “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” was played on a New York radio station in 1973, it led to a supreme court ruling that affirmed the FCC’s authority to fine radio or television stations for using such words and, potentially, take away their license to broadcast.