I’m beginning to think Brian Flinn, the freshly hired marketing whiz at World Wrestling Entertainment, is involved in a supremely crafty publicity game with his unrelenting campaign against pundits and politicians who dare suggest that WWE’s TV fare is anything but wholesome entertainment.
His protestations, principally to Chris Powell, the feisty managing editor of the Journal-Inquirer of Manchester, are not likely to prompt any editorial revisions, nor to make criticism of the faux-wrestling empire off-limits in the Senate race involving former CEO Linda McMahon.
But Flinn’s thin-as-air threat of legal action has succeeded in generating hundreds of mentions on news websites, blogs and other Internet spots – all repeating his insistence that not only is WWE neither pornographic nor violent, but that anyone who offers an opinion to the contrary is breaking the law.
Is it all a publicity stunt? Or is it possible CEO Vince McMahon secretly doesn’t want his wife trotting off to Washington, D.C.?
Whatever the motivation, Flinn could use a refresher course in pornography, libel law and television ratings.
The current dust-up was prompted by a Powell column shortly after the Republican nominating convention, opining that McMahon’s qualification for office “did not extend beyond her fantastic wealth, and that wealth derived from the business of violence, pornography, and general raunch.”
That put Flinn’s keyboard on overdrive, and prompted an angry letter stating that Powell’s assertion was objectively and maliciously false. Flinn demanded a retraction, and floated the possibility of a libel suit if one weren’t forthcoming. The letter, of course, made Powell’s day.
WWE’s performances are choreographed, Flinn explained, so they’re not really violent. (By that logic, Flinn would presumably consider it a lawsuit-worthy fib to describe Natural Born Killers as a violent movie.) Most of Flinn’s irritation, however, is aimed at claims that WWE is, or ever was, in the business of pornography. But in making his case, he misstates the relevance of WWE’s TV ratings, and confuses reasonably well-defined obscenity laws with thoroughly undefined notions of what can be described as pornographic.
“Since 2008, all WWE broadcast programming has been rated TV-PG and prior to that some of our programming had a rating of TV-14,” Flinn wrote in a statement issued Wednesday. “According to the TV Parental Guidelines established by the television industry and adopted by the Federal Communications Commission, neither TV-PG nor TV-14 content would be considered pornography or anything close to it. In addition, the FCC would not permit our content to air on network or basic cable television if it were pornographic.”
Well, that’s not quite true. In fact, under the formal FCC-approved guidelines, “sexual situations” are permissible in both TV-PG and TV-14 programming. (Even “intense sexual situations” for TV-14). Intense sexual situations in the absence of actual nudity might reasonably fall outside Flinn’s definition of pornography. And they might fit within Chris Powell’s. The WWE photo above of Trish Stratus — who famously stripped and barked like a dog during a 2001 WWE television show – might fit one person’s definition of soft-core pornography and not another’s.
Courts have tried to develop a meaningful legal definition of “obscenity” – to cover material so offensive and so lacking in artistic merit that it can be banned from the airwaves. That’s not the issue here. Instead, Powell’s assertion that WWE’s programming fits his definition of pornography is clearly an opinion. And as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 1974 case (before Trish Stratus was even born): “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.”
Translation: Write a letter to the editor, Brian.
Flinn surely knows he cannot sustain a libel or defamation suit, and he is sorely and naively mistaken if he thinks someone like Chris Powell would ever be spooked by a heap of legalese.
But if it’s all just a stunt to keep WWE’s name in the media – Brilliant.