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Beds takes a look at the FCC
Two disc jockeys in Miami seem determined to prove the truth of le Comte de Maistre’s famous statement that the chief drawback of democracy is that “The people get the government they deserve.” What bothers me is that it looks like I’m gonna get the government the disc jockeys deserve.
According to the Associated Press, Joe Ferrero and Enrique Santos are the hosts of “The Morning High Jinks” show in Miami.1 This alone would be enough for me to stick them in front of a firing squad. Just about anything with a “morning zoo” kind of zeitgeist makes me marginally homicidal.
I’m old enough to remember when you could actually listen to music on your way to work, rather than a bunch of Rick Dees clones – usually in groups of two to five, based on the station’s perception of how many of them it will take to generate an entertaining idea each day – demonstrating their complete unfamiliarity with the concept of an unspoken thought. Were it not for books on tape and my comprehensive collection of Bob Seger CD’s, I’d probably have to turn off the radio and direct all my attention to driving.
But Ferrero and Santos represent the cutting edge – or whatever is the equivalent when a blunt instrument is involved2 – of shock jock radio in Miami. Their latest prank was to call Fidel Castro and, after first softening him up with a string of mundane pleasantries, call him an assassin.
This is not an interview technique taught in most journalism schools. Most world leaders react badly to certain words, and “assassin” is generally high on that list, so I think it’s safe to assume this was not an attempt to conduct an interview so much as an attempt to hack off a head of state.
It was, in short, the kind of crank call we all made when we were at an age when we could still count our pubic hairs. According to AP, Castro reacted with a “stream of vulgarities” and the Federal Communications Commission reacted with a $4,000 fine against the radio station.
Now there’s just all kinds of things I don’t understand about this story. As a judge, I am, of course, fascinated by the amount of the fine. Sentencing is probably the hardest part of being a judge, so I’d love to know how the FCC came up with a $4,000 wallet-lightening as an appropriate punishment.
By comparison, the FCC socked Clear Channel Communications $495,000 for subjecting the nation to Howard Stern and another $755,000 for Bubba the Love Sponge. I’ve never heard Bubba the Love Sponge, but if he was 50% worse than Howard Stern, I have difficulty understanding how no one went to prison on that one.
Howard and Bubba’s crimes were basically the same ones we dock our kids a week’s allowance for, so I can only assume the FCC figured out what Clear Channel’s weekly allowance was and worked from there. Apparently WXDJ, the Miami station responsible3 for Ferrero and Santos, was fined less because it has a smaller allowance than Clear Channel, which, last time I looked, had a slightly higher net worth than God.4
But as much as I love sentencing issues, 5 I must admit it’s the crime itself that really fascinates me here. I mean, how can it be that easy to get Fidel Castro on the line. I can’t name – offhand – three members of the California Supreme Court who’d take a call from me. And we’re on the same team. 6 So how do two guys in Miami pick up the phone and five minutes later find themselves saying, “Fidel . . . Buddy . . . how’s it hangin’?”
According to AP, Ferrero and Santos “used snippets of an earlier prank involving Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to move the call from a receptionist up the chain to Castro in a five-minute broadcast June 17.” So these guys are making a living calling Latin American dictators and insulting them? Can it be this easy?
I couldn’t get through to Juan Castro, the Cincinnati third baseman, but Alias Smith and Jones can reach Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba, by using their previous conversation with the President of Venezuela? Do they not have secretaries south of Juarez?
The next thing I don’t understand is how can you be a good enough journalist to get a job with the Associated Press and not feel the need to tell us WHAT CASTRO SAID? How can that not be a major feature of the story?
It says he “denounced the callers with a stream of vulgarities.” How can they not tell us what those vulgarities were?
Castro at one time aspired to be a major league pitcher. He had a tryout with the Washington Senators.7 My experience is that ballplayers know how to curse. For many of them, this is the most cerebral part of the job.
Wouldn’t you love to know whether Castro’s epithet repertoire is up to the standards of some famous foreign ballplayers – say, Eric Gagne (Quebec) or Odalis Perez (Dominican Republic) or John Lackey (Texas)? Let’s be honest, these are the questions we really care about, aren’t they?
These, and the really-obvious-elephant-in-the-parlor question: Why in hell does the FCC care about this?
I mean, let’s review, class. We have terminated diplomatic relations with Cuba. We have subsidized its invasion, blockaded its coasts, embargoed its products, made it illegal for our citizens to travel to or do business with it, and crippled its economy . . . but we draw the line at crank calls?
How does that work? “Dear President Castro, the nation which bankrolled the Bay of Pigs and once seriously considered ways to poison your coffee, hereby apologizes for interrupting your phone service with a crank call.” That’s a little bizarre, even by the standards of the last two administrations.
And how would we deliver that message to Castro. We have no ambassador to Cuba. There’s nobody in a swallowtail coat and top hat to drive by the palace and convey our regrets. What do we do, call him up?
You think his secretary’s gonna fall for that? Can’t you just hear her? “FCC, my . . . donkey.8 Whaddya think, I’m stupid? The last girl who had this job got fired for letting a better story than that one get through to El Presidente. Come back when you’ve got Hugo Chavez with you, you twit.”9
For the record, what offended the FCC was not that these guys were calling people they couldn’t buy cigars from, or that they were insulting a guy who has an air force,10 but that they failed to get Castro’s permission to put him on the air.
Honest. You’re not allowed to put people on the radio without their permission. Under New York Times v. Sullivan, you could slander Castro ‘til you were blue in the face, but if you want to put him on the radio, you have to say, “Mother, may I.”
The radio station came up with a novel defense. They argued “the rule requiring people to be notified before their voices are used does not apply to people in Cuba.” There’s a certain surface appeal to that argument, but somehow I’m reassured by the fact the FCC rejected it.11
It didn’t really have much chance. The FCC’s only got one Spanish-speaking staff investigator to cover 626 Spanish-language radio stations. Newsweek seems to feel this may have something to do with the fact that FCC prosecutions of Spanish-language cases aren’t exactly thick on the ground. They weren’t about to let this one wriggle off the hook on a jurisdictional point.
I dunno. Part of me says this is not worthy of FCC involvement – not when there are big issues like why only one breast was bared on television during the entire Super Bowl. I mean, if Castro wants his calls screened, let him buy an answering machine like the rest of us.
But I suppose we can’t let just anyone make us look stupid to foreign governments. As de Maistre recognized, that’s the job of our elected leaders.
1 According to Newsweek, the name of the show is “The Morning Blast.” Because “Hi Jinks” seems so dated, I suspect Newsweek’s translation of “El Vacilon de la Manana” is closer to accuracy than AP’s. But I can’t say for sure. In college I stupidly bet on the Soviet Union to outlive my father (they were born the same year), and studied Russian. Now when my daughter refers to me as “papa” I don’t know if she’s calling me “father” or “potato.” back
2 La cabeza de martillo? back
3 And this is clearly the wrong word to be using to describe any of the parties in this fiasco. back
4 This analysis will probably answer a lot of questions for those of you who had clients sentenced in my court. back
5 Which is why California – whose criminal sentencing system is a trainwreck in a blizzard – is the perfect place for me. back
6 The smart money says there will be seven different libel suits spawned by this sentence, but I’m betting that Justice George can cobble together at least a majority, so I’m betting on four . . . maybe only three back
7 Honest, I am not making this up. He was pretty good. Probably had a major league curveball, but his fastball didn’t move. How delicious is the irony that Cuba’s dictator failed as a Washington Senator? back
8 Burro? Trasero? Nalgas? In Russian it would be bochka or oodar; fat lotta good that does me. back
9 I did not unthinkingly make Castro’s secretary a woman. I thought about it. I figured since I was making up the conversation, I could make up the parties. And if I made the secretary male, the pronouns made it hard to figure out who was talking. Not sexism, laziness. back
10 Always a bad idea. back
11 I understand the United States Supreme Court is going to wrestle with the issue of whether U. S. laws are available to people in Cuba; I’m sure the FCC will reopen WXDJ’s case if the outcome is different on this point. back
Posted by Justice William W. Bedsworth on Wednesday, June 09, 2004 at 12:23 Comments
|Comments by Sanny from USA on Thursday, January 06, 2005 at 17:39 - IP Logged
|Thank you for this excellent interview. Achewood is my favorite! :)))
|Comments by alicia from United States on Monday, June 21, 2004 at 00:28 - IP Logged
|we crippled their economy? that is funnier than getting castro on a hard line. lets see collective economy vs. private ownership.
|Comments by David from United States on Friday, June 11, 2004 at 19:23 - IP Logged
|Books on tape, eh? Makes me reconsider my "Briefs on Tape" idea. Mix in menacing music for "their" arguments and Bob Seger for mine, it could work!
|Comments by Jager from United States on Friday, June 11, 2004 at 05:30 - IP Logged
|I was a bit infuriated with the station after first hearing the story. I can imagine a much worse fate befalling the receptionist than getting fired.
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