Conservative Groups Urge Senate to Block Wheeler Over Broadcast Indecency

FCC nominee's vague position fails to satisfy Morality in Media and others

Tom Wheeler (D), President Obama's nominee for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, may be feeling the heat of the position even before he's confirmed.

Led by Morality in Media, a group of more than 70 conservative organizations are urging Senators to block Wheeler's confirmation "unless he agrees to lead a vigorous effort to enforce the federal decency law." Other groups in the coalition include the Parents Television Council and the Media Research Center.

Wheeler's position on broadcast indecency is unclear. During his Senate commerce nomination hearing, he was very careful to avoid one of the third rails of the FCC. He acknowledged there is a problem but stopped short of taking a firm position.

"I'm old enough that when I see some things to kind of grit my teeth and say, 'Is this what I want my grandkids to be seeing,' whether it be violence or obscenity or indecency or whatever … I do believe, however, that it is possible to call upon our better angels with some leadership," he said, implying that broadcasters should adopt voluntary codes.

Wheeler's answer just didn't cut it for the organizations that signed the Senate letter. "The FCC is the guardian of decency on broadcast TV and radio. The next FCC chair needs to show leadership on the issue and enforce the law, which he is free to do after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in FCC v. Fox of last June," the groups wrote in the July 9 letter.

Few issues are as toxic for the FCC chair as broadcast indecency. Regularly challenged in court, FCC chairs have struggled for decades to find the right balance, and some choose to avoid it altogether. In April, a month before he left, former FCC chair Julius Genachowski proposed the FCC only penalize egregious indecency cases, banning deliberate and repetitive uses of expletives, but not "fleeting expletives" that landed the FCC before the highest court in the land. With the proposal, the FCC dismissed more than 1 million indecency complaints, inflaming conservative groups.

So far, Genachowski's proposal has generated more than 100,000 comments, mostly opposing it. Broadcasters, including Fox, filed comments proposing that the FCC should abandon efforts to try and define indecent content.

"Time and technology have marched inexorably forward, but the commission's untenable effort to define indecent content through a hodgepodge of inconsistent and uneven rulings remains stuck in a bygone era. Whatever validity may once have existed for indecency regulation, the time clearly has arrived to lay rest to the anachronistic notion that broadcast stations deserve anything less than the full First Amendment protection bestowed on all speakers by the Constitution," Fox wrote.