Hearing-Impaired Have Right to Read Springer

The ongoing tussle between Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Conn., and television talk show host Jerry Springer seems destined to lead the Springer team to tone down the top-rated show that Mr. Lieberman characterized as a "bizarre, perverse circus." Even the likes of ABC Inc. president Bob Iger told an audience of his fellow broadcasters gathered in Las Vegas earlier this month he questions "the logic" of airing programs like "Jerry Springer."

"I believe the entire industry suffers from the association," he said. "Programs that are embarrassments to our business will, in the long run,alienate our viewers."

Sounds like a healthy discussion between government and business about television, doesn't it? But beneath the surface lurks the potential for an unnecessary brawl that even the unabashed Springer might not allow on his show. Lieberman has taken to the airwaves to suggest that federal funding to provide closed-captioning for Jerry Springer be cut off.

This linkage between program content and limiting media services available to people with disabilities represents a dramatic departure from existing law. And contrary to Lieberman's suggestion, legislative intervention may be necessary to make explicit that government funding of closed-captioning programming be fully separated from government decisions about what shows people are watching.

In 1990, President Bush signed into law the Television Decoder Circuitry Act, which received broad bipartisan congressional support in its enactment. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D) of Mass., then chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and finance, described the law as "a giant step forward toward ensuring full and equal access to television for all Americans."

Closed-captioning enables 24 million deaf and hearing-impaired citizens to share in the television experience with the hearing world. It also benefits many other segments of our population, including millions of functionally illiterate adults who are learning to read, 18 million children in kindergarten through third grade learning to read, and 3 million to 4 million immigrants learning English as a second language.

In 1991, soon after the law became effective, I was asked to convene a national forum on closed-captioned television, which is supported, in part, by federal subsidies to organizations such as the National Captioning Institute. I vividly recall that speaker after speaker argued for more captioning, more quickly, recognizing that some government funding would be necessary throughout the 1990s as a new generation of closed-captioned TV sets began to enter the market.

Perhaps the most poignant remarks were made by Jack R. Gannon, special assistant for advocacy to the president of Gallaudet University in Washington. He relayed the story of a deaf American who, frustrated and tired of waiting for more than 30 years for programs that he could understand, took his ax one day and smashed his television set, destroying it.

"Frankly," noted Mr. Gannon, "there have been many times when we as deaf viewers have been tempted to take out our axes as well."

Closed captioning has provided a rich resource of enjoyment for millions of Americans, offering what Mr. Gannon likes to call "agonizing pleasure." It's hard to believe that the original architects of the law would want it to support only programming that was deemed to pass muster with one or more members of Congress. And it's even harder to imagine that such a bold act of governmental hubris would be sustained by the courts if enacted.

After all, the Jerry Springers of the world may be tasteless and objectionable, but there is no First Amendment basis for cutting off federal funding because of displeasure with what they talk about.

So let's sever this unfortunate linkage before it becomes accepted as a possible policy trade-off, and maybe even strengthen the law to make sure it is not used again as a hostage to another headline-grabbing controversy about television's role in society. The notion that Congress should choose who is qualified to be a couch potato is silly, unconstitutional and, yes, half-baked.

* Stuart N. Brotman teaches communications law and policy at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

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