The Real Indecency Is The Show In Washington

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Indecency? It’s hard to define but easy to find examples of. Congress passing an unconstitutional indecency bill last week, for instance, was indecent. It’s indecent to hold the entire broadcasting industry responsible for the earth-shaking exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple at the Super Bowl, but that’s what’s going on. What are history books-if there’ll be any-going to say about this age of imbecility?
One nipple pops out and the First Amendment gets shot full of holes. Imagine if there had been two nipples. Or if Justin Timberlake had whipped out his weenie. Ms. Jackson’s exhibitionism wa s foolish and pitifully out of context, but there hasn’t been a single recorded example of anyone being harmed by it-scarred for life, say, or stricken with hooterphobia.
The nipple would barely have caused a ripple if flashed during the MTV Video Awards, an annual exercise in tastelessness and boorish behavior. It popped out at the wrong time and place, that’s all. It hardly justifies a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition.
Clearly the saddest and most infuriating irony of the whole mess is that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell is demagoguing this “issue” into a national frenzy, or at least a federal frenzy, about indecency in the media, thus distracting attention from his attempt to impose a radical relaxation of media ownership rules on the country. As wary observers have noted, one factor clearly responsible for the overabundance of smut in TV and radio is the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer sinfully wealthy hands-and the death of localism it is helping to bring about.
Powell’s gall is as appalling as his knuckle-headed zealotry on behalf of our fattest fat cats. We’ve had dangerous and tiny-minded FCC chairmen before-Mark “The Toaster” Fowler’s name pops to mind-but none who behaved with such cynical hypocrisy and bias. Colin Powell must be mortified at the efficiency with which his son has sullied the family name.
Why has the name “Viacom” been used so infrequently in condemnations of the Super Bowl fiasco? It was Viacom’s MTV that perpetrated the unsavory halftime show and Viacom’s CBS that televised it. But Viacom’s Sumner Redstone knows well where to put his political donations and whom to cultivate in Washington. Instead of going after an enormous conglomerate, Congress and the FCC turn their sights on an individual like, say, Howard Stern, who with staggering illogic has been singled out as part of the overkill resulting from Ms. Jackson’s indiscretion.
For 20 years, listeners to Mr. Stern’s radio program have known precisely what to expect. Howard Stern may make an unappetizing poster child for First Amendment freedoms, but he’s as entitled to them as anybody. On Friday, Stern turned over a large portion of his show to recordings of other voices, on talk shows and newscasts, expressing outrage at the latter-day witch hunt on which the federal government has embarked.
Of course no acceptable working definition of “indecency” exists, which complicates things. Who decides what is indecent? Maybe it will be left to the whims of Chairman Powell. The new $500,000 fine for individual acts of indecency would apparently apply not only to licensees but also to personalities, like Stern. And what about a panelist or guest on a talk show who utters a naughty-naughty? If George Will loses control (an impossibility, admittedly) and spews a longshoremanly blue streak some Sunday morning on ABC, will federal marshals arrive at his doorstep on Monday?
Perhaps it will work like parking tickets. You just pop half a million dollars into the handy postage-paid envelope and drop it into a mailbox. It will get to the FCC soon enough. Or maybe not soon enough-then what?
Whatever happened to letting “the marketplace” decide? All we’ve heard for years from FCC appointees-Powell included-and other political leaders of a particular persuasion is that the marketplace can police itself with no help from meddlers in Washington. That theory was gospel-until L’Affaire Nipple and until the FCC ran into unexpected opposition in its attempts to let Big Media get still bigger.
Howard Stern does just fine in the marketplace. Many people find him offensive and don’t listen. The same can be said of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly.
Was “Thou shalt not commit indecency” ever considered for inclusion in, perhaps, the Ten Commandments? Of course not, because nobody knew what indecency was then, just as nobody knows what it is now. It’s whatever Michael Powell wants it to be, apparently. Oh, for the days when the FCC was a laughable bunch of do-nothings with crummy offices and little clout in the capital. Then again, oh, for the days when the commission was chaired by progressive, imaginative and politically unpredictable intellectuals like Newton Minow and Nicholas Johnson.
The Jackson incident deserved condemnation and a week at the national water cooler. Maybe 10 days. Then we should have moved on to other topics for discussion, preferably things that matter and substantively affect American lives and the quality thereof.
Remember Al Pacino in “And Justice for All”?-“I’m out of order? You’re out of order! This whole court is out of order!” Somebody has to go up to Capitol Hill and start screaming, and what they can scream is, “I’m indecent? You’re indecent! This whole [expletive deleted] Congress is indecent! Attica! Attica! Attica!”
Oh, wait. That was another Al Pacino movie. Anyway, what a chicken-hearted and lily-livered Congress has wrought is not merely indecent. It truly is obscene.