The Importance of Making Complaints :: Catholic News Agency
The Importance of Making Complaints

By Robert Peters, President of Morality in Media

In media interviews I am often asked (in so many words), what can people do about objectionable content on TV or about pornography, which these days is just about everywhere.

While making complaints isn't the only thing you and I should be doing, I do think the failure to make complaints to “cultural offenders” and government agencies is a primary reason why we have so much obscenity and indecency in the market place and the media. In a poll for Time (3/28/05), 66% of adults said there was too much violence on TV, 58% said too much cursing and sexual language, and 50% said too much explicit sexual content, such as nudity. But only 5% had “ever complained to a broadcaster or the government, or participated in a boycott or demonstration about indecent or explicit content on TV.”

In a poll for TV Guide (8/2/03) 57% of adults said they “noticed an increase in offensive material on television lately,” but only 8% had called a TV network to complain about it.

There are, of course, many reasons why people don't make complaints (including fear of rejection and fear of offending someone), but most people don't make complaints either because they are too busy (and tired) or because they think their voice won't be heard. Those too busy (and tired) forget the admonition, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” To put it another way, to preserve cherished liberty each generation must help pay the price.

I have many “shortcomings” but sloth isn't one of them. So I know what it means to be busy and tired. But there are times when I have to stop what I am doing and make a complaint.

I did that recently after a woman called MIM to report that a “hardcore” pornographic DVD, “Hardly Legal,” was in a list of “Barbie” doll DVD's on I told her what I thought she and others could do, but I wasn't planning to do anything myself - because I was busy!

But the call troubled me, and after I hung up I decided to check the “Barbie” DVD list. I found “Hardly Legal,” which depicts three women on its cover, one exposing her buttocks, one fondling her bare breasts, a third engaging in oral sex. MIM Vice President Ed Hynes and I then worked on a letter to com's CEO and on a press release, both of which went out the same day. The “Hardly Legal” DVD was gone two days later. “Ah,” you might be saying, “but you are paid to make complaints.” Yes I am, but I am also paid to do ten other things, and there aren't enough hours in a day for me to do it all.

Those too easily discouraged forget the story about the little boy with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes. They also make the mistake of doing nothing because they can't do everything.

I often add MIM's voice to the voices of others in protesting a moral evil, and there is no question about it, “There is strength in numbers.” We did that recently on the proposed Internet domain (opposed) and “cable TV choice” (support) issues. But there are other times when I may be the only person who protests!

I don't want to hold myself out as a hero! But I do think that if millions of Americans would say to themselves, “I don't care how busy and tired I am; I don't care what others do or don't do; I'm going to do the right thing,” things would change for the better and quickly.

Report Obscenity Crimes

Citizen complaints about violations of obscenity laws are important because to determine whether material (website content, video, cable TV film, magazine, etc.) is “obscene,” judges and juries must apply community standards, and complaints reflect “community standards.” Complaints also help rebut defense arguments that the Justice Department is “forum shopping” or that a public official is carrying on a personal vendetta against pornography. Some U.S. Attorneys are also reluctant to enforce obscenity laws unless people in their district are making complaints.

If you or your children have been exposed to hardcore pornography on the Internet, you can report it at Morality in Media's website. MIM forwards these complaints (over 50,000 to date from citizens in all 50 states) to the U.S. Justice Department in Washington to each local U.S. Attorney where a complaint originated. There is no comparable tool for filing citizen complaints on Internet obscenity to federal prosecutors.

To report obscenity sold in “adult businesses” or mainstream stores, in the U.S. mails, or on cable or satellite TV, you can use one of the downloadable paper Obscenity Complaint Forms available on the website (click to the PORN PROBLEM & SOLUTIONS page).

Report Indecency Violations

As defined by the FCC, material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” Once again, community standards are important and so are complaints as a reflection of community standards!

In October 2005, the FCC announced that it had launched “a new, user friendly website designed to educate the public about the laws governing the airing of obscene, indecent and profane material and the Commission's enforcement of those laws.” The site explains how to file a complaint and what happens to the complaint once the FCC receives it.

To use the new website to make a complaint, go to and click “Enforcement,” then click “Broadcast of Obscene, Profane or Indecent Material,” then click “How to File a Complaint,” and finally, click “New Electronic Complaint Form FCC Form 475B”

You can also make a complaint by emailing to [email protected] or by calling 1-888-225- 5322 or faxing 1-888-418-0232 or by mailing to The FCC Enforcement Bureau (Investigations Division), 445 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20554.

Your complaint should include the program name (or product advertised); a tape, transcript or detailed written description (from memory) of the content (vulgarity, sex talk or action); the time it aired; and the station call letters. At present, the FCC enforces the broadcast indecency law only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

If a mainstream business sells pornographic magazines or videos, or if a hotel or motel provides pornographic films, tell thempolitely but firmly-that you object to the sale of pornography. If there are alternatives, tell them that you will take your businesses elsewhere unless they stop selling porn. You should also make complaints to local supermarkets and convenience stores that openly display lewd, vulgar magazine covcovers at checkout counters.

Most mainstream advertisers (sponsors) do not want to offend the majority of viewers in order to reach an audience of morally challenged youth and adults. Most TV and radio advertisers are, therefore, responsive to complaints. On many occasions, even a single complaint has brought results. There is, however, strength in numbers. Two organizations that are leading the effort to put pressure on advertisers are the American Family Association [(601) 844-5036;] and Parents Television Council [(800) TV-COUNTS;].

We should also thank businesses and sponsors that respect community standards!

Morality in Media is on the front lines of the cultural war. Even if we worked 24/7, we couldn't respond to every assault on decency and morality that comes to our attention.

I try to find a middle road, not responding to every offense, but also not ignoring every offense. I encourage you to do the same. For most, one complaint each year would be a breakthrough. For others, a few or several complaints would be real progress. What's most important, however, is not how often, but whether you make a complaint.

Clearly, one person can make a difference and often does, so please have faith and don't make the mistake of doing nothing because you can't do everything. Equally clear, there is strength in numbers, so form a committee or subcommittee within an existing organization (like a church) or form a new organization and network with other like-minded citizens.

And never forget that old but still very relevant adage, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people - like you! - to do nothing.”

Printed with permission from


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