Wednesday, December 1, 2004

'Stiff' fines: real and pretend

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Pat Murphy

Millions of unsuspecting Americans searching for tranquility in Nature may soon discover this frightening reality: they could be arrested as criminal violators of public order.

Congress has included in that 3,000-page, deficit-heavy spending bill an overkill fine of $5,000 and six months in jail (maximum) for visitors to designated access sites on public lands who don't first buy a pass.

The father of this wanton outrage, slipped into legislation in the dark of night, is Rep. Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican with a special contempt for folks enjoying public lands and whose district doesn't include a square inch of national park or forest. Republicans who tried to stop Regula's gambit were helpless, they claimed.

If enforced, an unwary hiker who, say, earns $30,000 a year, could be slapped with a fine equivalent to 17 percent of his or her annual wages, not to mention time in the slammer.

Now consider another crime and fine the Federal Communications Commission is boasting about—the "stiff" $3.5 million punishment of media giant Viacom for sleazy on-air language of smut-mouthed Howard Stern and radio filth mongers Opie and Anthony, who broadcast sounds of a couple purportedly having sex inside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. (Viacom paid a separate $550,000 fine earlier for Janet Jackson's bare-breast Super Bowl halftime stunt.)

Applying everyday basic math, it turns out the $3.5 million fine isn't tough at all on Viacom, whose 2003 gross revenues totaled $26.6 billion (that's billion with a "B").

The fine amounts to .013 percent of Viacom's revenues. Compare that to the hit a hiker takes for not having a pass. Relative to income, the hiker pays 1,230 times what Viacom did.

A hiker without a pass is more of social menace than a mass marketer of "indecency."

Viacom considers $3.5 million as petty cash. It can move on, remorselessly cooking up more "entertainment" to titillate and infuriate the Decency Brigade and prepare to pay more "stiff" fines paid out of cash from 176 radio stations, the CBS network, 15 cable TV networks, 39 TV stations, 2 movie studios, 15 book publishing imprints, 3 production companies, and 2 outdoor sign companies.

A $3.5 million fine won't stop so-called broadcast indecency. It's big business: Sirius Satellite Radio has signed Stern to a five-year contract worth $500 million to continue his sex-and-vulgarity shtick without FCC controls on satellite radio.

Meanwhile, cultural history reminds us that today's "indecency" is tomorrow's custom. True now, true in our grandparents' time.

However, there's always a solution for the pure of mind to avoid broadcast "indecency." Change TV and radio stations.

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