In covering Trump’s words, broadcasters fear the long arm of the FCC

There’s a fascinating intersection of regulations and politics in the latest essay from NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen in which she answers critics of the network’s coverage of Donald Trump’s comments regarding his treatment of women.

“Please stop referring to Donald Trump’s comments as ‘lewd comments’ as though he was caught saying ‘dirty words’. He was bragging about nonconsensual sexual behavior,” listener Cody McMahan, of Dallas, wrote, one of many comments Jensen says she received about the framing of Trump’s remarks.

Why the rhetorical gymanstics? The FCC has given listeners wide latitude in filing complaints against the radio and TV stations it regulates. Even if it doesn’t end up in a fine against broadcasters, who wants the expense and misery of going through the process of answering to the FCC?

But NPR felt restricted from running, in full, the most relevant parts of the tape where Trump is heard talking about grabbing women in their private parts, [executive newscast producer Robert] Garcia said, due to Federal Communications Commission concerns. (NPR programs are heard on member stations licensed by the FCC, which requires stations to uphold what it calls “contemporary community standards.” A detailed explanation of NPR’s policy about use of the tape, in the context of FCC regulations, can be found here, in a memo from Memmott.)

“I would like to have had the freedom to put the whole thing out there but one of the considerations we have is the FCC,” Garcia said.

The FCC crackdown on obscene or indecent material applies between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. It does not apply to cable TV operators. You may recall a few years ago, Ken Burns distributed two versions of the widely acclaimed War series, because some PBS station managers were worried they’d be targeted by the FCC if the military members interviewed had been allowed to say what SNAFU and FUBAR actually mean.

“But I do think there were other ways to more clearly characterize more of the content of the tape early on, without running into legal hurdles,” Jensen declares.

By the middle of last week, she says, NPR’s Lakshmi Singh came up with a way to portray Trump’s words. She did so in a story about House Speaker Paul Ryan’s rejection of Trump.

He announced the decision after The Washington Post released a 2005 recording of Trump bragging about groping women, which without their consent, would be sexual assault.

But still no use of the words Trump used. As Jensen noted, NPR media critic David Folkenflik disagreed with NPR’s decision not to say them.

As of last week, about two dozen people had complained to the FCC about broadcasters who repeated Trump’s words.