Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2004 / 6 Kislev, 5765

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

On 'Saving Private Ryan,' some stations caved in to fear | Let's you and I do a little role playing.

Let's say you manage the local affiliate station of a major broadcast network. Said network is preparing to air, uncut and unbleeped, a movie that was a hit in theaters a few years back. The movie is violent - lots of shooting and killing, blood and viscera squirting everywhere. It's also profane - liberal use of the "f" word, the "a" word and lots of other words you'd just as soon not hear your 9-year-old say in church.

So do you let the movie run?

Let's say it's your basic action flick. Does this affect your decision? Let's say it's a teen slasher movie. Does this make it easier to turn it down?

Now, let's say the movie is "Saving Private Ryan." Does this sway your opinion in favor of letting it air? Should it?

As you may have heard, a handful of ABC affiliates was faced with just that decision about just that movie last week. They said it was indecent and refused to run it.

For those who don't get out much, let me tell you there's no question "Ryan" is violent; the depiction of the D-Day invasion that opens the story is one of the most wrenching and gruesome sequences ever captured on film. And as for profane, it's guilty on that charge too. The soldiers in the movie talk like, well ..."soldiers."

But you should also know that "Ryan" is one of the most powerful and widely acclaimed films of the last quarter century, a thoughtful meditation on duty, morality, and the sacrifices of soldiers, and that ABC was airing it in honor of Veteran's Day. The network has done so twice before, with relatively little notice.

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Of course, that was before Janet Jackson shared her breast with the world.

The uproar over that stunt changed things. Fueled by an ambient sense that entertainment media have gone too far, the FCC has been noisily cracking down on sex, profanity and violence on the nation's airwaves. I doubt anybody whose name isn't Howard Stern really cared all that much. But last week's copout by the ABC affiliates offers an object lesson in why maybe we should.

There is no universally agreed upon definition of "indecent." But most of us, being reasonable human beings, take into account context and intent in determining whether a piece of art - or for that matter, a piece of anything - is offensive. Yes, it's a necessarily subjective standard and we might reasonably disagree on where to draw the line. But that doesn't invalidate the principle.

For instance, I'd wager most Americans would be affronted if a broadcast network showed a woman's naked breast as part of a sex scene. I'd also wager there'd be considerably less indignation if the same breast were seen in a report on advances in mammography.

That's called judgment. It's a virtue not found in abundance among the more censorious of us. For them, a breast is a breast is a breast.

One is reminded of the time Oklahoma Rep. Tom Coburn objected to the broadcast of "Schindler's List" because it contained "vile language, full-frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity." He seemed not to understand that this was a depiction of the Holocaust, not spring break in Fort Lauderdale.

As guardians of the public airwaves, station managers are paid for their presumed ability to draw the distinction Coburn could not. It's a task at which the gutless wonders running those ABC affiliates failed miserably. With no less august a personage than senator and former prisoner of war John McCain vouching for the film and asking them to show it, they folded like a beach chair.

And what's galling is that they caved in, not to anything government did, but to anticipation of what government "might" do. In other words, to fear. Unwilling or unable to distinguish between the prurient and the profound, they knuckled under, gave in, meekly submitted to prior restraint.

I've seen "Ryan" four times. Nothing in it is half as offensive as that.

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