Comparison of Oprah and Stern spells lack of standards

Questioning a proposed $27,500 fine, Howard Stern claimed that if the Federal Communications Commission was going to fine him, then Oprah Winfrey, “the darling of the world,” deserved to be fined as well for “questionable material” aired on her Thursday show. The FCC needs to firmly establish guidelines of what is and is not acceptable to avoid claims of favoritism such as Stern’s. The lack of clear standards hampers the media and also means the fining and finger-pointing is likely to continue.

According to the Boston Herald, a former FCC official said the use of sexually explicit terms are tolerated when placed in a clinical discussion setting — alleging that Winfrey’s discussion was therefore acceptable. A spokeswoman for the FCC Enforcement Bureau told the New York Post that she hadn’t received any complaints about Winfrey’s material, and typically, the FCC won’t react to controversial material unless a complaint is received.

Stern’s show receives complaints on an almost daily basis, and his content is hardly clinical. Regardless, Stern was adamant that a segment from Winfrey’s show, which focused on how parents really know very little about their children’s sex lives, was as controversial as his own shows. Correctly, the FCC did not agree.

“While the content was similar to that of shock jocks who discuss masturbation, the FCC stated that the subject matter alone does not constitute indecency,” Robert Hilliard, author and former FCC official, told the Herald.

But while the FCC handled this claim correctly, clearer instructions are required for program makers.

For material to be considered obscene, the FCC Web site says, “the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” It also says that offensive material is prohibited at all times. Indecent speech, which is language that is “patently offensive based on community standards,” is prohibited between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

If by community standards, the FCC means its own, then it needs to make them crystal clear and establish guidelines that enable program makers to interpret what “offensive” and “artistic” mean.