The more things change, the more they stay the same: 36 years ago, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Council and politicians were taking aim at the music industry, using moral outrage to justify censorship in the name of the children. At the time, the record industry was also pushing for new taxes, resulting in an epic failure to defend freedom of speech and expression. Sound familiar?
“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” social media whistleblower Frances Haugen said before Congress earlier this week. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.” “Congressional action is needed,” she said. “They won’t solve this crisis without your help,” she added. One might hope Ms. Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, was referring to reforms that unleash the power of freedom of speech and return Facebook to its original mission as an open platform for the free exchange of ideas. One would be completely wrong, however, her goals are the precise opposite. After more than a year of watching Facebook and other social media companies embrace a new, insidious censorship with the tacit permission of at least one major political party, Ms. Haugen’s grand idea is even more of the same. This time, we need to do it for the children!
Where have I heard that before? If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, pleas for congressional action to save the children have to be a close, close second. Name an issue, any issue, and there’s a good chance some demagogue, somewhere, is claiming we need to act now for the children, the precious children. Gun control, climate change, the minimum wage, taxes, healthcare, coronavirus, it’s all for the children, all the time. Nor is Ms. Haugen the first person to claim that some new pop culture phenomenon or technology is harming America’s youth. Once again, you name it, chances are it’s already been said. Television? Bad for the children, violent TV even worse. “Kids who view violent acts on TV are more likely to show aggressive behavior,” according to KidsHealth.org. Microwave ovens? When I was growing up, they claimed it would make young women sterile, now they’ve led to “thousands of kids being burned.” Rock music, complete with Senate hearings and feigned moral outrage? Dungeons and Dragons? Video games? Do I even need to explain?
Somehow or another, the Republic survived, but for our purposes here, Tipper Gore and the Senate hearings on rock lyrics thirty-six years ago are more illustrative than the rest. It all began when Ms. Gore, the wife of then Senator Al Gore, purchased Prince’s Purple Rain for their 11 year old daughter. Somehow, she was completely unaware the movie from which the soundtrack was culled was rated R. In the first verse of “Darling Nikki,” the late, great pop legend sings “I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend, I met her in a hotel lobby, Masturbating with a magazine.” To combat this scourge, she organized a group of concerned parents, the Parents Music Resource Council (PRMC), composed of other pearl clutching poobahs in her elite circle, the wives of other senators, cabinet members, and prominent DC-area business men.
At first, the PRMC insisted they’re goal wasn’t censorship per se. Instead, they wanted to make sure parents were more informed about the content with a rating system, similar to what was in place for movies. They believed the Recording Industry of America could take on that role, but the scale between movies and music was radically different. The Motion Picture Association of America rated around 350 movies per year. The recording industry would have to rate some 25,000 songs, a monstrous task. The PRMC was helpful enough to identify what they considered the worst offenders. The “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of songs that they described as “the twisted tyranny of explicitness in the public domain.” The list prominently featured a potpourri of what was popular at the time, everyone from Def Leppard and AC/DC to Cindy Lauper and Sheena Easton.
The recording industry itself was in something of a bind, torn between defending their artists and the endless quest fo profits. While they were battling the new regulations pushed by the PRMC, they were also pushing Congress to pass a new tax on blank cassette tapes, fearing that people were copying official recordings and robbing them of valuable royalties. This fight took place before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, where three of the members wives, Al Gore, Fritz Hollings, and John Danforth, all Democrats, were also on the PRMC. Freedom of expression would, necessarily, give way to more pressing financial concerns. In other words, if the tax they sought was passed quickly, they would cave to the new ratings demands.
The hearing itself occurred on September 19, 1985, creating a firestorm that one Senator described as “the largest media event I’ve ever seen.” The speakers planned for the PRMC included members of the group itself, experts in child health, and religious figures. Ostensibly, the PRMC was still committed to its position that censorship was not their goal, but this notion was quickly dispelled when Senator Hollings bemoaned the explosion of “rock porn,” claiming “If I could find some way to constitutionally do away with it, I would.” A Republican Senator from Florida, Paula Hawkins, agreed with her Democrat colleagues, believing the traditional Republican notion of personal responsibility didn’t apply when faced with the horror of explicit lyrics. She saw no need to worry about such niceties as the First Amendment, lamenting how much music had changed over the years. “Subtleties, suggestions, and innuendo have given way to overt expressions and descriptions of often violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult,” Senator Hawkins said without a hint of irony given a similar outrage over pop music since it began. The grandstanding continued as Reverend Jeff Ling read a sampling of lyrics. Album covers were presented. A child psychologist claimed that David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam,” was known to be a fan of Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne.
Standing against this brick wall of moral outrage, there were only three “defendants.” Most of the artists under attack didn’t even bother to show up, but three wildly disparate musicians had the courage to fight for their convictions, Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame. Mr. Zappa was the first to defend freedom of expression. “I’ve heard some conflicting reports on whether or not people on this committee want legislation. I understand that Senator Hollings does,” he began, but was immediately cut off by Senator Danforth who informed the musician it wasn’t his role to question the exalted Senators. Senator James Exon chimed in, claiming bizarrely that he wasn’t for censorship, but he could support “voluntary” legislation. “OK, so that’s hardly voluntary,” Mr. Zappa replied, before masterfully elucidating the real issues at hand. “The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretation and enforcement problems inherent in the proposal’s design It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.” The list of demands, “reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training program to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few.” Mr. Zappa was also well informed about the recording industries push for new taxes and the potential conflicting of interest, noting “a tax bill that is so ridiculous the only way to sneak it through is to keep the public’s mind on something else: ‘Porn rock.’” He described the entire thing as, “trade-restraining legislation, whipped up like an instant pudding by the Wives of Big Brother.”
Perhaps needless to say, the Senators were not impressed with one calling him boorish. The clean cut John Denver, a devout Christian was up next. He believed the proposal would be very close to censorship and described how one of his own songs, “Rocky Mountain High” had been banned from radio stations because people thought it was about smoking marijuana even though there are no actual references in the song itself. “What assurance have I that any national panel to review my music would make any better judgment?” He asked the Senators. Dee Snider was the final witness, a tattooed, long-hair not exactly the average person to appear before Congress. He believed he’d being targeted for “character assassination.” “The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experience, and dreams into the words,” he explained. The “supposedly well-informed adults” were completely misinterpreting his lyrics, claiming his songs were about something entirely different from the intention. “There is no authority who has the right or the necessary insight to make these judgments. Not myself, not the federal government, not some recording industry committee, not the PTA, not the RIAA, and certainly not the PMRC,” he concluded.
Unfortunately, very few minds were changed despite three disparate artists clearly defining the stakes and the implications of the proposals. Ms. Gore would soon get her way and “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” would become a part of life forevermore, existing to this day on streaming services. Nor did the censorship and suppression end there, large chains refused to sell records that were labelled explicit and radio stations refused to air songs for fear of the FCC and “excessively violent content.” Some smaller record stores were threatened with eviction.
Fast forward thirty-six years and the technology has changed, but not much else. Once again, we’re being told we need to sacrifice the fundamental principles underlying our democracy and way of life for the sake of the children. Whether or not parents should either allow or at least monitor their offspring’s usage of technology, is entirely irrelevant. “Personal responsibility” need not apply in the push for regulation and censorship. This time around, Ms. Haugen is very, very concerned that Facebook’s algorithms use emotion provoking content to drive engagement, prioritizing polarizing information. Because posts are ranked based on how users are engaging, they are vulnerable to the dreaded manipulation and misinformation. “People will choose the more addictive option even if it is leading their daughters to eating disorders,” she explained. At the same time, she said, “I have a huge amount of empathy for Facebook. These are really hard questions, and I think they feel a little trapped and isolated.” However, “in the end, the buck stops with Mark” and there “is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
For his part, Mark Zuckerberg disagrees Ms. Haugen’s assessment of Facebook, saying “At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” but concurs that congressional action is needed. “We’re committed to doing the best work we can, but at some level the right body to assess tradeoffs between social equities is our democratically elected Congress,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a note to Facebook employees. For their part, Republicans and Democrats are both chomping at the bit to engage in this new moral crusade, though they likely have different ideas how to do it and no legislation has been proposed. But, “Whenever you have Republicans and Democrats on the same page, you’re probably more likely to see something,” explained Gautam Hans to the Associated Press, a technology law and free speech expert at Vanderbilt University.
Perhaps, no one is saying what really needs to be done: Free speech and the open exchange of ideas should be our primary concern. To the extent any regulation is needed, it should be solely to ensure the First Amendment is enforced on social media channels. Nothing more and nothing less, for the rest is just nonsense, another in the endless series of excuses to control what we see, hear, and do. Alas, where’s Dee Snider, John Denver, and Frank Zappa when you need them? Is anyone, anywhere going to stand up for our basic freedoms this time around or are we going to go silently into a new age of government mandated censorship, the world truly ending in a whimper no one even hears because it’s blocked by the powers that be?