On Monday’s edition of Morning Joe on MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough, while recounting a story about Obama Chief of Staff designate Rahm Emanuel, dropped the "F-bomb" – seemingly without even realizing that he did it. He genuinely looked shocked after being told that he had not used the euphemisms that we’re using here, and apologized profusely, apologies that were even posted on the MSNBC website later in the day. While the cast joked about the FCC fines that would be imposed, and discussed the legal ramifications about this incident, none seemed to recognize that cable – even basic cable – has not been subject to the same indecency regulation as over-the-air television, even though most basic cable networks generally observe the same standards observed by broadcasters to avoid offending their audiences (and perhaps inviting new attempts to regulate their operations.
Cases have generally held that cable, being a pay medium invited into the household, and with filtering technologies that allow particular channels to be blocked, does not have the same intrusive nature as the broadcast medium which comes in free to any house with a TV set and an antenna. And, until recently when the V-Chip was introduced, over-the-air television did not have the same ability to block access to adult content. It is interesting that this incident occurs only one week after the Supreme Court held its oral argument on the fleeting expletive case deciding if the inadvertent, unscripted use of a profanity should be subject to a fine. If nothing else, this incident shows that mistakes happen even in the most unexpected places – who would expect that the host of a morning television program would slip up and let fly with an improper word? This incident, and the cases before the Supreme Court, do not involve intentional, repeated use of profanity, like the George Carlin routine about which we wrote here, but instead just a fleeting isolated use of one of those "bad" words. The FCC simply cannot demand perfection from its licensees without demanding perfection from society at large, which is clearly beyond the FCC’s jurisdiction.
Update -11/12/2008 – Apparently, to avoid the issue coming up in the future, according to trade press reports, MSNBC will now run Morning Joe with a 7 second delay. So "live" programming will no longer be completely live, but instead subject to review before airing. In recent months, there has been at least one case where such a system failed to catch an offending word, as the editing system is not infallible, but it does, at the very least, provide some opportunity to remedy these inadvertent errors that will, from time to time occur.