Whatever you think about broadcast obscenity, it is hard to make the case that a disk jockey cursing causes greater social harm than someone who puts another person's life in danger.
But that, apparently, is how Congress looks at things.
Under the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this month and is likely soon to come up for consideration in the Senate, television and radio stations that broadcast "indecent" material can be subject to fines as high as $500,000 per incident.
Under the nation's worker safety rules, an employer that commits a "serious" violation -- defined as "a violation where there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and that the employer knew, or should have known, of the hazard" may be fined up to $7,000 per violation. If an employer engages in a "willful" violation of the rules -- meaning "the employer intentionally and knowingly commits" the violation -- it may fined up to $70,000.
It's not just penalties for violations of worker safety laws that are dwarfed by the proposed fines for indecency. Environmental fines, considerably more robust than workplace penalties, generally pale in comparison to the proposed sanctions for broadcast indecency. (The fines for the worst violations of the Clean Air Act, for example, top out at $10,000 per day per violation.)
Beyond the stunning misplaced sense of priorities, there's a lot to learn from the juxtaposition of the proposed penalties for broadcast indecency and those for other forms of corporate wrongdoing.
That's because the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act is intended to be a serious law exercising a serious deterrent function. Other regulatory regimes are not.
There are at least three features of the broadcast bill that should be imported into other corporate law-and-order rules.
First is the size of the fines, which are big enough to make any company take notice, especially because they can easily be compounded by citation for numerous violations.
Second, the broadcast bill posits fines for both companies and individuals -- for both broadcasters and their employees or performers. The analog would be for fines to be levied against both corporations that endangered their workers, and against the CEO or floor manager who was responsible for permitting dangerous conditions to exist.
Third, the broadcast bill threatens the death penalty against violators of indecency rules. The bill directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider violations of indecency rules in making their determination as to whether renew broadcast licenses. Without these licenses, broadcasters cannot use the public airwaves, and would be out of business. For repeat violators -- those with three or more violations -- the bill commands the FCC to commence a proceeding as to whether it should revoke the violator's broadcast license.
For better or worse, there's no question that, if enacted, the broadcast indecency bill will have the intended deterrent effect. Just look at radio colossus Clear Channel's effort to distance itself from Howard Stern and deejays crossing the obscenity lines.
Profit-maximizing economic actors take seriously significant penalties, especially threats to their ongoing viability.
Would that the Congress be willing to impose such sanctions against corporate scofflaws that threaten the safety of people and the planet.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, http://www.multinationalmonitor.org. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press; http://www.corporatepredators.org).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
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