How We Got the FCC

This is the second part of a recurring series on the history of American censorship.

So sayeth the Communications Act of 1934:

 For the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, and for the purpose of securing a more effective execution of this policy by centralizing authority heretofore granted by law to several agencies and by granting additional authority with respect to interstate and foreign commerce in wire and radio communication, there is hereby created a commission to be known as the “Federal Communications Commission”, which shall be constituted as hereinafter provided, and which shall execute and enforce the provisions of this Act.

Well that sounds perfectly reso—wait wait wait a second, “regulating…make available…world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities…for the purpose of national defense.” This all sounds familiar. Any thoughts, rest of the world?

Now, aside from establishing some groundwork for attitudes that might stand on some shaky moral and political grounds, this little passage establishes a federal organization that has purposes and powers ranging from the mundane, “reasonable charges” for use of cables and wires, to the more intriguing and vague, “regulating interstate commerce,” and of course, “the national defense.”

Before you write Congress demanding an explanation for creating such a massively powerful and vaguely directed institution, it is important to consider the historical context which allowed for and necessitated the creation of the FCC.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, radio was just becoming a thing that existed.  People’s minds were blown, and those who were of a mechanical, scientific, or otherwise tinkery mind set, were starting to fool around with this wonderful new technology that could transmit voices over incredible distances.  Way more efficient than the old way of sending a message.

So, lots of people were fiddling around with the new technology. Too many. Way too many. So many people were screwing around with the radio that the airwaves were crowded enough to prevent some public phones from operating. It is also believed that amateur radio users were partially responsible for the delay in the rescue of people from the Titanic when they mistook or mistranslated a message that went something like, “Holy shit, it’s cold, come save us!” for something like, “Yeah. we’re cool. No problems here. Certainly no iceberg gouging into us.”

This galvanized the public and Congress to recognize the need for some way to regulate the radio, which was done via, the Radio Act of 1912. We’ll let the legal folk explain:

The Radio Act of 1912 was a U.S. federal law that required all seafaring vessels to maintain 24-hour radio watch and keep in contact with nearby ships and coastal radio stations. The Act also required all amateur radio operators to be licensed.

Now, lets fast forward a couple years to the early ‘30s. The radio, telephone, telegraph, and general broadcasting have firmly established themselves as facts of life, disseminators of news and culture, and big big big businesses that bring in all sorts of money from all over the country. Did I mention people were making money off this stuff? Who’da thunk there would be money in telecomm? Hm.

For those of you who are familiar with the powers vested in Congress, one of them is to regulate interstate commerce, meaning any transaction that occurs across state lines is subject to federal tax and regulation. Many think this is just an excuse for Unc’ Sam to dip his finger into lots of pockets, while others see this as a moral imperative and a way to ensure that our federal and competitive capitalist systems keep their shape and form. From there, FDR got the power and impetus to get the government involved in the way people talked to one another.

The Communications Act of 1934 created a single agency (the FCC) which would be in charge of overseeing all of this new-fangled radio stuff, which is way more efficient than having different agencies responsible for different radio uses. Additionally, and as mentioned above, it can be read as such that any and all wire, cable, and radio transmissions can be effectively taken control of by the president.

The law explicitly allows for the President, military, and now FEMA and related agencies to interrupt our broadcast of Barely Clothed Girls Making Cake on FOX to let us know that there is a terrible storm or attack or pandemic sweeping through the nation, which is good and necessary. This is good government when it is enacted responsibly, and obviously a scary, steep, slippery slope when enacted irresponsibly or in a clandestine manner, but it all makes practical sense. It is the federal government’s power and responsibility that an apparatus so crucial and influential be maintained and regulated (to some extent) so that life saving information can get out to those who need it (which is not to say the system is perfect. Even 65 years later, on 9/11/01, FDNY and NYPD were unable to communicate with each other via radio. They each had different and devoted frequencies, which makes sense. You don’t want orders getting crossed up and a ladder truck showing up at a hostage situation, or SWAT showing up at a house fire, but on 9/11, the departments were unable to coordinate efforts which almost certainly let to more fatalities among first responders than there should have been. Of course there shouldn’t have been any, but we’ll have the just and loving God debate another time. How’s that for a parenthetical?).

So how did this sensible piece of legislation, get into the nonsensical business of playing chaperone for the First Amendment? Here’s a teaser — It has to do with this nice lady:

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1937 Mae West was at the top of her career. She was the Scar Jo, the J-Lo, the top starlett of film and radio. Then she did this.

This got her in big trouble. Of course, nowadays it wouldn’t warrant much of any reaction whatsoever, but it was a different time and all that talk of apples, hips, and Mae’s interpretation of the script got a whole bunch of people all hot and bothered enough to write a huge amount of angry letters. It was a popular outrage against the skit, which was ironic since she was too popular for her career to suffer much, but the massive public outrage got NBC’s attention, and they banned her from working for anything they owned ever again. The FCC itself didn’t get too much involved, merely issuing a statement, but with the enormous power that NBC wielded in the broadcasting world at the time, it set a precedence for censorship which put the FCC in an uncomfortable position: If private companies are going to enforce such standards of decency, how can we have any credibility unless we do the same?

The question of decency standards is something that would and still does continue to dog broadcasters, entertainers, interest groups, and the FCC for the rest of the 20th century and into the start of the 21st century. We’ll talk about some of the more interesting examples next time. Till then, go find a news camera crew and moon ‘em. Moon ‘em good.

photo credit: Jota Cartas