Saturday, January 22, 2005

Employment malfunction

What if people knew you as the guy who overreacted to a nipple?

Such is the immediate legacy of Michael Powell, who announced Friday that he will leave his post as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in March. His replacement has not yet been revealed, and it's unclear if the new FCC leader will continue his predecessor's draconian, heavy-handed enforcement of broadcast indecency standards.

The FCC's widely publicized crackdown on indecency began after the infamous exposure of washed-up singer Janet Jackson's breast during last year's Super Bowl halftime show. Since then, just about any stray curse word or hint of sexual innuendo has been grounds for an FCC investigation and the threat of millions of dollars in punitive fines. Under Powell's leadership, the agency has been so overzealous that Fox recently decided to pixelate a cartoon character's nude posterior rather than risk a huge fine. The people whose agency was founded to parcel out bandwidths have now anointed themselves the morality police.

Powell has overseen some good things during his tenure, most notably a regulation allowing cell phone users to keep their old numbers when they switch companies. But those achievements are overshadowed in the short term by the chilling effect that his agency's fines have had on free speech. Perhaps more troubling in the long run, the FCC's recent deregulation of media ownership could allow a few large media companies to buy even more radio and television stations, which would be bad news for people who like some diversity in the content sent over public airwaves.

Powell's departure will be a good chance for the remaining commissioners to put the brakes on the FCC's runaway fines and restore some common sense to the agency's enforcement practices. But hey, if they don't, at least it'll be fun to watch television producers scramble to explain why Mommy and Daddy have to sleep in separate beds from now on.

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