The FCC 'Investigation' Into Stephen Colbert Is A Complete Non-Story

from the words-are-but-wind dept

Last week comedian and “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert found himself in a little hot water after he made an oral sex joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the tail end of his opening monologue. If you missed it, here’s the relevant bit (the easily-offended can skip down the page).

Obviously, the monologue wasn’t exactly enjoyed by Trump supporters, who collectively backed a somewhat rudderless and unsuccessful attempt to pressure CBS into firing the comedian (whose ratings have, non-coincidentally, been soaring thanks to his Trump tirades). Colbert ultimately issued a follow up comment in which he stated he probably could have more carefully chosen his words, but quite intentionally fell well short of offering an apology to Donald and Vlad.

Normally this is where the story would have ended. But last Friday afternoon The Hill ran a piece stating that the FCC had received an entirely-ambiguous number of complaints about the monologue, and was going through the process of determining whether or not Colbert’s comments violated FCC broadcast TV indecency guidelines. Under current FCC rules, the agency keeps an eye out for broadcast TV content deemed “indecent” before 10PM, and attempts to police “obscene” content after that point. This is all pretty standard FCC practice, with the end result most frequently either resulting in a modest fine or no action whatsoever.

When asked about Colbert’s comments, FCC boss Ajit Pai made a fairly innocuous comment to a talk radio station stating that the FCC would, in essence, manage the Colbert complaints in much the same way they handle every other obscenity complaint:

“We are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it?s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we?ll take the appropriate action,? he told Talk Radio 1210 WPHT Thursday. ?Traditionally, the agency has to decide, if it does find a violation, what the appropriate remedy should be,? he said. “A fine, of some sort, is typically what we do.”

Again, this is a fairly inane comment by an FCC boss, effectively stating that he was simply going to follow normal FCC process. Yet somehow the narrative quickly shifted in the media, with outlets immediately complaining that Pai’s actions were somehow a frontal assault on free speech, or worse. The Writers Guild of America fanned these flames by issuing a statement claiming it was “appalled” by Pai’s behavior:

“?As presidents of the Writers Guilds of America, East and West, we were appalled to read recent remarks by Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai,? said WGA East boss Michael Winship and WGA West chief Howard Rodman this morning. ?He said the FCC would investigate a joke about Donald Trump by Writers Guild member Stephen Colbert, ?apply the law? and ?take appropriate action? if the joke were found to be ?obscene,’? the duo added of the FCC chair?s May 5 response in a radio interview.

Again though, all Pai really said is that the FCC would do what it has always done when investigating obscenity complaints. In fact, you’ll note he never even uses the word “investigation.” Yet somehow this idea that Pai was engaged in a rogue attack on free speech quickly ballooned to becomce this week’s media narrative du jour.

Look, Ajit Pai has done plenty of arguably horrible things in just his first few months in office. He has helped the cable industry protect its cable box monopoly. He’s helped prison phone monopolies rip off inmate families. He has started dismantling efforts to bring broadband to the poor. He has begun the process of killing net neutrality, solely for the benefit of telecom duopolies. He helped pave the way to the elimination of consumer broadband privacy protections. He’s even taken aim at already-finalized telecom merger conditions intended to improve broadband competition.

Make no mistake: Pai wants to replace meaningful oversight of companies like Comcast with the policy equivalent of wet cardboard. All while pretending — with the help of misleading, cherry picked data — that this is all of immeasurable benefit to consumers.

There’s been a torrent of controversial or otherwise abysmal things Pai has been up to that deserve attention. Yet somehow the focus this week has been a hysterical over-reaction to a non-story. Yes, Pai has obvious post-FCC political ambitions and enjoys throwing the occasional red meat to what he hopes will be his future constituents. But his comments on the Colbert indecency complaints are quite arguably the least interesting and most innocuous thing the FCC has been up to.

Not only did the press hysteria over the Colbert non-story take the media’s eye off the ball, it reinforced the narrative that the press is awash in a “fake news” — requiring a litany of hand wringing and soul-searching — despite nobody really knowing what the term even means. And while many were quick to insist this proves “the left” also engages in “fake news,” that tends to obfuscate the fact that the problem with modern news most frequently isn’t that it’s fake (though it sometimes is) — it’s that much of it is just good, old-fashioned shitty reporting.

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Comments on “The FCC 'Investigation' Into Stephen Colbert Is A Complete Non-Story”

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32 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Regulation

Look, Ajit Pai has done plenty of arguably horrible things in just his first few months in office.

Generally with the justification that government regulation is bad. If so, shouldn’t government regulations on speech be the exact thing to be getting rid of? (Unlike cable boxes etc. there’s an actual constitutional amendment involved here.) Let the free market decide what people should broadcast.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Regulation

“Generally with the justification that government regulation is bad. If so, shouldn’t government regulations on speech be the exact thing to be getting rid of?”

I am very anti-FCC glad to see someone that might come around to seeing the light. You are correct, regulating foul language over the airways is contrary to the 1st Amendment.

“Unlike cable boxes etc. there’s an actual constitutional amendment involved here”

Yea, well, there are many other areas this comment applies too but no one gives a shit.

“Let the free market decide what people should broadcast.”
We tried that but pro-regulatory people and businesses did not like it… and again the citizens didn’t give a shit when it got taken away so….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Regulation

No such thing as a free market, it is a theoretical model that would not last very long in the real world as it does not account for human irrationality, corruption and illogical bullshit.

Well, yes, but there’s a whole class of politicians including Pai who pretend like none of that stuff would happen. He ignores instances of real consumer harm to say that, and yet he doesn’t reach for that response here (even though it’s clear no viewer’s ever been harmed by hearing something naughty on a late-night talk show).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Regulation

“No such thing as a free market, it is a theoretical model that would not last very long in the real world”

yes, America became powerful because of luck. nice to see clueless folks around here… not.

“as it does not account for human irrationality, corruption and illogical bullshit.”

It does, you are just to ignorant and juvenile to understand that. There is no greater power a citizen can wield than where they spend their money. With regulation, you STILL get everything you hate about free market capitalism but NOW with government backed thugs to boot. Where did you get your logic? A crackerjack box?

Regulation is the cause of this problem right here. The FCC is a regulatory agency that caused all of this so to keep things simple, we asked for this. Now sit back and sleep in the bed your ignorance helped to make.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Regulation

I can’t find a single sentence in your entire comment that makes sense. Not one. Take this shining example:

“The FCC is a regulatory agency that caused all of this so to keep things simple, we asked for this.”

What the fuck does that even mean? It makes no sense. And you sneer at the other guy’s logic? Wow.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Regulation

Your ad hominems aside, the lack of supporting data implies that is all you’ve got.

There never has been a free market .. anywhere on this planet.
America has never had a free market.
Do you consider barter to be a free market?
Perhaps your understanding of the term has become polluted.

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

It’s intentionally shitty reporting. If it fits with their narrative, and will get them eyeballs (or clicks) it goes live, no ifs ands or buts. This is the way that places like the Boston Globe and Fox News are alike. If tomorrow, Murdoc woke up and decided that pushing Communism would get him the most eyeballs/money, Fox and Friends would be immediately renamed to Hammer and Sickle. Same thing with every other major news origination. And really, in the current political climate, what sells better than “OMG Government attack on Free Speech!” Looking too much into it might reveal a non-story that won’t sell, so they don’t.

Thad (user link) says:

There’s been a torrent of controversial or otherwise abysmal things Pai has been up to that deserve attention. Yet somehow the focus this week has been a hysterical over-reaction to a non-story.

It looks to me like the focus this week has been on the FCC website going down after John Oliver’s net neutrality story. When I type Pai into Google News, the first two headlines are about net neutrality, the third is "Chairman Ajit Pai is draining the FCC Swamp", then there’s one about mergers; the next two are about the Oliver piece, and the one after that is about a different Pai. Colbert’s name doesn’t appear until the eighth link. Same result if I search for FCC: the Colbert story is eight articles down.

All that said, I think it’s a little premature to say that this is a "non-story". I think the WGA is right to circle the wagons. On what grounds do you think Ajit Pai has earned the benefit of the doubt on this one? I don’t find it hard to believe that he’d abuse his authority to retaliate against a comedian who criticized his boss at all.

By all means, declare it a non-story after the FCC releases its findings and announces that no fines will be issued. And by all means, point out the importance of holding Pai’s feet to the fire on net neutrality and other issues (though those really aren’t in the WGA’s wheelhouse and it’s hard to blame the union for focusing on an issue that is). But I wouldn’t make any assumptions about what Pai is or isn’t going to do.

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