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Coming soon from your friends in Congress: Must-not-see TV

To see the damage done by the absurd fiction that America's broadcast airwaves belong to "the people" -- a cute rhetorical device that in practice translates to grandstanding politicians and Big Brother regulators -- just take a look at Tuesday's hearing on violence in the media before the Senate Commerce Committee.

The senators said repeatedly that researchers have "proven" violence harms children, though they wisely avoided any discussion of the social-science quackery that passes for research on this subject. But, granting their premise for a moment, did they talk about the Internet, undoubtedly the single most pervasive and unmonitored medium reaching American kids? Nope. I could post the video of poor Danny Pearl's head being sawed off on this blog and wouldn't hear a peep from any of the distinguished senators.

Movies or gangsta rap? Nope. Too much political money in that part of Hollywood -- that's why Tipper Gore promptly shut her mouth on the subject when her husband developed presidential ambitions. Video games, in which kids not only see acts of violence but are rewarded for carrying them out? Frank Lautenberg made a couple of token stabs in that direction but was roundly ignored by everybody else.

No, the hearing concentrated almost entirely on TV. "Cowardly, terrible, appalling, repulsive were just some of the terms used by legislators to describe TV programmers," Broadcasting & Cable wrote in its account of the session. Because the airwaves are owned by "the people," the senators feel free to endlessly bluster and threaten TV executives, secure that that nobody will bring up that annoying First Amendment business.

Just how absurdly carried away they get was clear from Tuesday's hearing. One of the focal points was a scene from a coupe of seasons ago on FX's The Shield in which a police captain is taken hostage by members of a street gang, then forced to have oral sex with one of them. Even Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, who was supposedly there to defend the TV executives, railed against the scene, claiming it was probably met the definition of legal obscenity.

In what universe, Professor Tribe? The sex was shot without nudity or on-camera exposure of genitalia. More to the point, the sex was forced -- that is, it was rape. I've seen literally hundreds of rapes in movies that were both more violent and more sexually explicit. Perhaps the most graphic was the vicious pool-table assault on Jodie Foster in 1988's The Accused, which was almost universally praised for supposedly showing the humiliation and degradation felt by rape victims, for bringing the real impact of the crime home to the men in the audience.

Well, The Shield did the same thing -- the rape itself lasted only a few moments, but the impact on the police captain continued throughout the season, damaging his performance at work, wrecking his family life, leaving him sexually impotent and fueling a thirst for revenge so overwhelming that he eventually struck a deal with other criminals to murder the rapist. If you ask me which made brought home to me the psychological damage suffered by rape victims, The Accused or The Shield, I'd say it was wasn't even a close call: The Shield. But instead of being praised for its candor, as The Accused was, The Shield is being offered as pretext for establishing government censorship of television. That's what happens when "the people" own something.

Of course, the irony -- perhaps crime would be a better word -- is that The Shield isn't even on the airwaves. FX is a cable channel, not a broadcast network, and lies outside the FCC's authority. That's a technicality that the senators would like to change. Would-be decency czar Jay Rockefeller promised to introduce legislation putting TV under the thumb of government censors. He's tried before without success, but Congress' lust to win cheap votes -- and punish political enemies along the way -- is growing. Earlier this week, California's senator Dianne Feinstein said she favors reimposing the old Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters, for the explicit purpose of putting talk radio (too conservative for her delicate San Francisco tastes) out of business.

The wisest thing TV people could do right now would be to endorse the proposals floating around for so-called a la carte pricing for cable service. A la carte pricing would enable cable customers to order (and pay for) only the channels they want. Anybody offended by The Shield could simply not order FX and leave the rest of us alone. The Parents Television Council, the clean-up-TV group that produced the video collection of violent scenes (Including the one from The Shield) that got the senators so worked up Tuesday has said many times it would back off of calls for government regulation of cable content if a la carte pricing were to become law. The TV industry should take them up on it.

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