Colbert joke prompts thousands of FCC complaints from all political stripes
- Created on 19 May 2017
The number of complaints about Stephen Colbert's joke is dwarfed by the more than half a million the agency received over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl on CBS. | Getty
Disgruntled viewers of Stephen Colbert’s late-night show on CBS complained to the FCC that a sexually explicit joke about President Donald Trump and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is “beneath the dignity of American broadcasting,” and urged the agency to sanction the network.
A sample of the more than 5,700 complaints that flooded the agency since Colbert’s joke on the May 1 episode of “The Late Show” included concerns about indecency, hate speech and homophobia from across the political spectrum. Colbert used a crude term to refer to a metaphorical sexual relationship between the U.S. and Russian presidents in a monologue on Trump’s first 100 days in office.
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The FCC, in response to a POLITICO Freedom of Information Act request, released samples of the complaints, with the names of the people who submitted them redacted but their geographic locations intact. The agency provided the first 100 complaints received between May 2 and May 17.
Parents complained about answering questions from their kids, while one viewer thanked God “my children, elderly parents, and other loved ones did not see the dispicable (sic) display of vitriol that spewed from his hateful mouth!”
Some viewers argued that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama wouldn’t be the butt of a similar joke, and complained that Trump was unfairly targeted by the media.
“I know all you Commie shills hate this president but it is your job to keep these Leftists from dragging this nation further into the gutter,” one complaint from St. Petersburg, Fla. said.
Several raised qualms about what they viewed as the homophobic nature of the joke: “By using accusations of being gay as an insult, it implied that there is something wrong with being gay,” an Urbana, Ill. viewer wrote.
“There is nothing wrong with two men who love each other,” one complaint, from a trans man who identifies as homosexual, said. “I don't like Trump but I also don't like anti-homosexual comments being aired for millions of people to see. I have to say, shame on you for allowing this.”
“I really thought we left this kind of bigotry in the wastebin of history,” a New York City viewer said. “Instead I have to endure it during dinner with me and my husband's son.”
Many of the complaints called for fines against Colbert and CBS, but lawyers familiar with the FCC’s indecency and obscenity rules say that’s not going to happen.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said the agency is reviewing the complaints. Such a review is standard protocol for the FCC, and doesn’t imply the complaints have merit. Pai declined to give an update on the review when asked Thursday at a press conference following a commission meeting.
The number of complaints about Colbert's joke is dwarfed by the more than half a million the agency received over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl on CBS.
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The FCC’s indecency rules apply to broadcasts between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., and even then, they prohibit material that “depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive,” as measured by the community standards.
Andrew Schwartzman, an attorney with Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation, pointed out that what Colbert said was bleeped out, and even if it wasn’t, it would probably pass the FCC’s indecency test.
But that doesn’t matter because "The Late Show" airs at 11:30 p.m., in what’s known as the safe harbor, where the rules are looser because children are presumed to be asleep. The FCC would have to prove the joke was obscene, and as broadcast attorney David Oxenford wrote in a blog post on the subject, “for a program to be obscene, it needs to be really bad.”
“A television program like that in question here is never going to be found obscene — the words describing the specific sexual act itself was bleeped out of the broadcast, the description was not designed to appeal to prurient interests (sexual interests — it was not delivered in such an explicit way as to appeal solely to sexual interest), and it did have social significance — it was delivered in a politically motivated statement,” Oxenford wrote. “Under these circumstances, the extremely rigorous obscenity test simply would not be met.”
Schwartzman was even more blunt, “There is zero chance the FCC would even dream of bringing a obscenity case against this. ... There is less than zero chance it could succeed.”