Monday, March 22, 2004

Speech, Journalism, and American Pravda

Frank Rich (NYT): Apr├Ęs Janet, a Deluge
If we lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban, perhaps it might make sense that Janet Jackson's breast (not even the matched set!) would lead to one of the most hysterical outbreaks of Puritanism in recent, even not-so-recent, American history...

Not all of this can be pinned on Ms. Jackson's nipple ring. This story dates back to 9/11, or, more specifically, to two weeks after, when the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, condemned a historically astute Bill Maher wisecrack about America's "cowardly" pre-9/11 pursuit of Al Qaeda. Mr. Fleischer warned Americans that they should "watch what they say," and some Americans took heed. Mr. Maher's "Politically Incorrect" was dropped by a few network affiliates and advertisers and then canceled by ABC.

The message had been sent that governmental media management was in play, and we've seen its ramifications ever since — whether in the docility and self-censorship of the news media in the run-up to the Iraq war or in an episode as relatively trivial as CBS's dropping of "The Reagans." While the current uproar over broadcast indecency is ostensibly all about sex, it is still all about politics, especially in an election year when a culture war rages. Washington's latest crew of Puritan enforcers — in the administration, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission — are all pandering to a censorious Republican political base that is the closest thing America has to its own Taliban. The media giants, fearful of losing the deregulatory financial favors the federal government can bestow, will knuckle under accordingly until the coast is clear.

...Censorship is when the government suppresses speech, so, technically at least, Howard Stern, like Bill Maher before him, has not been censored. The only sanction applied to Mr. Stern's show so far has been the action taken by a corporation, Clear Channel Communications, which yanked him from six stations it owns, as it is freely entitled to do. (Mr. Stern's program, a product of Viacom, continues to air on roughly 35 other stations.)

But the story line is more subtle than that. Both Clear Channel's founder, Lowry Mays, and a director, Thomas Hicks, have long financial associations with George W. Bush, whether as recent campaign contributors or past business cronies (in the Texas Rangers, in Mr. Hicks's case). Clear Channel needs Washington's powers-that-be to protect its huge share of the radio market. It's only after Mr. Stern turned against Mr. Bush on the air that Clear Channel dropped his show, which is otherwise no more or less racy and politically incorrect than it always has been. A Clear Channel executive told Bill Carter of The New York Times this week that his company had "no political agenda," but those words seem like spin when weighed against the actions of its stations and personnel.

It was another of that company's talk show stars, Glenn Beck, who convened pro-war "Rallies for America," some paid for by Clear Channel stations, to counter antiwar dissent last year. Clear Channel stations were also prominent among those that dumped the Dixie Chicks from their playlists after Natalie Maines's dustup with Mr. Bush. If anything, the company's political affiliations are somewhat more consistent than its enforcement of good taste; last month the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable cited Clear Channel's penchant for "tolerating shock jocks so raw they'd make Howard Stern blush." Even as it dropped Mr. Stern and another long-running show, "Bubba the Love Sponge," for indecency, The Daily News reported that one of the company's New York outlets, Z-100, was promoting Eamon's "I Don't Want You Back," a fount of sexual innuendo that contains the four-letter version of the contraband Bono word in its full title.

Clear Channel's banishment of Mr. Stern has troubled even clear-cut Bush allies. In what must be a first, the conservative Sean Hannity and the liberal Alan Colmes on Fox were in agreement that, in Mr. Hannity's words, "this is chilling because I think at the end of the day, those people that have conservative viewpoints on the radio can similarly be targeted." Rush Limbaugh said, "I haven't ever heard the Howard Stern show, but when the federal government gets involved in this, I get a little frightened." He wondered what would happen if "John Kerry-John Edwards-Bill Clinton-Terry McAuliffe types end up running this country someday again" and decide that "conservative opinion is indecent" because it "causes violence." (Some days later, perhaps after realizing Mr. Stern's anti-Bush animus, he took to defending Clear Channel, with whom he is in partnership, in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece.)

... Entertainment built on violence and sex, in other words, isn't going away as long as Americans lap it up. Even now, two networks that missed out on CBS's Janet Jackson action on Super Bowl Sunday have booked her in the weeks to come — ABC for "Good Morning America" and NBC for "Saturday Night Live." Ms. Jackson's nipple ring, meanwhile, still peeks out of a CBS Web site even as the more insidious indecency, of callow media giants bedding down with cynical politicians, remains largely under wraps

Rich is hopeful that corporate interests will ensure a full package of sex and violence reaches all Americans, irregardless of government intent. No argument there -- Rome will have its circuses. Rome, however, was not known for its vibrant democracy. The real concern is not nipple exposure, it's political exposure. Aside from a few rabid bloggers and some veteran columnists, who's exposing what this administration is up to? Few younger journalists can afford loss of sources and/or loss of employment. Independent journalists can't afford major investigative works.

In an era of media consolidation and Rovian ruthlessness, Clear Channel is a greater threat to our freedom than the American Taliban. Our American Pravda will be profitable.

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