The extent of broadcaster fears of a Federal Communications Commission indecency fine were illustrated yet again on Wednesday, when NPR’s Fresh Air Bowdlerized the title of Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, soon to be released as a movie.
“Imagine working in a homeless shelter,” Fresh Air host Dave Davies began his interview with Flynn and director Paul Weitz, “and finding one day that your father has come in from the street for a bed. That happened to writer Nick Flynn when he was in his twenties. He wrote about it in a memoir that we can translate as Another BS Night in Suck City.”
The story has been turned into a movie released as Being Flynn. NPR wouldn’t even print the actual book title on its website. There readers see the name translated as Another Bulls- – – Night in Suck City.
I contacted Fresh Air producer Danny Miller to ask why he thought the alteration was necessary, and if FCC related concerns were involved.
“The quick answer to your question is: yes, basically given FCC regulations and how they are implemented, we would not use the word ‘bullshit’,” Miller replied. “When it comes to a book or movie title, or a lyric which is being quoted, we will generally indicate to our listeners that we’re changing the language, like our host Dave Davies indicated in the intro to the interview.”
If it’s a word that comes up in a movie or tv clip, or a song, we will bleep it – a convention that I think all listeners understand.
As to the why: it is to protect stations from FCC fines or other legal challenges. It is important to understand that if a national program such as Fresh Air includes language which leads to FCC action, it’s the stations which broadcast Fresh Air (not Fresh Air, and not NPR) which are at risk of a fine or a license challenge. Stations trust us not to put them in jeopardy, and we take this issue very seriously.
Fresh Air may be being a bit overcautious here. In fact, the FCC has made it clear that it gives broadcasters wide berth on indecency when it comes to news related stories, plus the benefit of the doubt in defining what is news. In a November 2006 indecency Order, for example, the agency explained its decision not to issue a fine against the CBS Early Show following an interview with a contestant on the Survivor: Vanuatu TV program.
“I knew he was a bullshitter from Day One,” the participant declared during the discussion.
In its exemption decision the FCC recognized “the need for caution with respect to complaints implicating the editorial judgment of broadcast licensees in presenting news and public affairs programming, as these matters are at the core of the First Amendment’s free press guarantee.”
If the FCC regards a conversation about Survivor to be news, surely an NPR discussion of this upcoming movie based on Nick Flynn’s reminiscence is news as well.
To be fair, I understand that Fresh Air may want to err on the side of safety, given the erratic nature of the FCC’s indecency enforcement record. But this is a sad, mediocre kind of caution. We are talking about the adulteration of serious literature here. I read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in almost a single sitting. Respect for a great writer’s words should override the imagined sensitivities of the public. Over the years, Fresh Air has broadcast programs about slasher movies, pornography, J. Edgar Hoover’s sexuality—you name it. Surely the show’s audience can handle the title of this fine book.
In any event, this is yet another reason to oppose the FCC’s indecency rules, currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court, and which clearly violate the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.
I also contacted NPR about the cleaning up of the Flynn title on NPR’s website, but received no reply.
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