Sunday, November 14, 2004

Saving 'Saving Private Ryan'

The New York Times
November 14, 2004

Saving 'Saving Private Ryan'

No one ever accused broadcast executives of being profiles in courage. But the pre-emptive timidity of a score of them was a sorry spectacle last Thursday when they decided not to show "Saving Private Ryan" on Veterans Day because they were afraid of the Federal Communications Commission. Station executives were openly fearful that the movie's realism in depicting the carnage and vulgarity of war might offend that newly righteous bureaucracy, whose blue nose was bent out of shape by the flash of Janet Jackson's breast during the last Super Bowl and, later, by Bono's casual airing of an obscenity assuredly in use among soldiers in Iraq.

The incident might seem minor - the vast majority of ABC network stations chose to run the film - except that the executives' timorousness is a sign of the effects of the government's growing willingness to intrude excessively into American culture. Before the Janet Jackson and Bono episodes, the F.C.C. took the position that context mattered - unscripted profanity at a public event like a music awards program or accidental glimpses of flesh would be excused, while deliberate and regular abuse of the public airwaves would not.

"Saving Private Ryan" was shown without the F.C.C.'s objection on network television the past two years. But the agency's shifting and arbitrary standards left executives at stations in Dallas, Atlanta and dozens of other cities wondering what the rules are and fearing for their licenses.

Pressure groups and organized campaigns complaining in the name of public morality have been a constant in the nation's political culture since the witch trials of Salem. Government officials should resist the temptation of joining the fray on either side. Some stations asked the F.C.C. to formally approve the airing of "Saving Private Ryan," and the agency properly resisted becoming an overt censor. Now the F.C.C. should move the standard back to where it was - a position of common sense.