Paul Jacob

Oh, great and mighty Federal Communications Commission, save us from the evils of our culture. Police the airwaves so that 280 million Americans see and hear only what we want to see and hear.

But how is the system working for us? Seems the FCC is having the same stellar success enjoyed by so many other government agencies.

The fact is the FCC has not, will not and cannot save us, or our children, from violent and sexually inappropriate images, crude language or a steady stream of immorality on radio and television. After Janet Jackson?s breast-bearing performance at the Super Bowl, hasn?t that been dramatically demonstrated?

Crash Course in Crass Culture

Jackson?s indecent exposure is not nearly so out of place as many of us wish it were. Though, like many of you, I had the good sense to preemptively turn off the halftime show, reports (including pictures) cause me to believe the finale of Justin Timberlake tearing off Ms. Jackson?s top was preceded by even more repulsive material.

Many of the commercials, I hear tell, were even worse. One advertisement for a coming horror movie showed what media critic Tom Shales described as "extremely disturbing and graphic images of brutality and gore." This while 1 in 5 children in America, aged 2 through 11, were tuned in to the Super Bowl broadcast.

Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, was quick to launch an investigation. "Like millions of Americans [90 million by estimates], my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration," he said. "Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. Our nation?s children, parents and citizens deserve better."

Yes, we do. My wife and I do not allow our children to watch programming that might be otherwise suitable, because the commercials that punctuate the programs advertise violent and deviant movies--or highlight the most titillating coming attractions on TV. A culture of garbage is not the sole province of the Super Bowl; it has become endemic.

Now, it is not as if the FCC has been doing nothing. Recently, the FCC announced a fine of $755,000 against Clear Channel Communications for sexually explicit radio broadcasts. In the last three years, Chairman Powell has imposed more fines on stations for violating indecency regulations than the two previous FCC chairmen combined.

But would anyone in their right mind suggest that the appropriateness or, dare we say, morality of radio and television has improved?

Limits and Limitations

There are limits to the ability of politicians to save us from the culture--and dangers, too. There is that sticky issue of freedom of expression. I don?t want a culture where a minority or majority dictates its tastes or moral views for everyone else. If someone wants to watch the Super Bowl halftime show, he should have that freedom. However, how do we secure our rights NOT to be subjected to such vulgarity?

Simple: We must concentrate on our local culture, personally and as families and neighbors. That is where we have control. Attempting to control "national culture" leads us to national politics and means Idahoans must agree with New Yorkers. Politicians will be there for the photo-ops and send us their fundraising letters, but they don?t deliver.

We have far better tools at our disposal, and tools that involve zero censorship. We have our TV remotes and our dollars. I have often railed in my free Common Sense e-letter against a political system that ignores the average person. We are too often powerless as voters. Thankfully, we are much more powerful as consumers.

The NFL ?s reaction is telling. NFL spokesman Joe Browne claimed, "We expressed our concerns to MTV all during the preparations for the game and we had assurances that the entertainment would be appropriate to all aspects of our audience." The NFL deplores what happened, of course, or so they say. Still, if it was as defrauded by MTV as it claims, the NFL hasn?t filed suit for a refund. Moreover, the NFL released a statement saying that they were "not likely" to use MTV to produce future Super Bowl halftime programs. Not likely?

Not being regulated by the FCC, the NFL is glad to "applaud the FCC?s investigation?" The league is simply passing the buck.

But the point is CBS, which can be fined substantially, doesn?t fear the FCC, either. Nor does MTV, Justin Timberlake or Janet Jackson. An FCC fine and the surrounding controversy is exactly what they want. It puts money in their pocket.

How It Works

For years, Congress has forced us to pay taxes for sacrilegious and sometimes pornographic art. (Note that in this time of huge deficits, the National Endowment for the Arts is having their funding increased 17 percent.) Much of this art has been so awful its only chance for recognition is to be threatened with so-called censorship. Tax-funded artists aim to shock and offend us. Were their "works of art" created on their own nickel and shown in private galleries, there would be no controversy. Without controversy, it?s just run-of-the-mill unpopular art--by deservedly poor artists.

We don?t need to censor this trash or those who attempt to dump it on us. First, it will only encourage them, making hacks look like artists. Second, giving the government the power to control what we see and hear is wrong and un-American. Plus, since people disagree, censorship can cut both ways.

By depending on government to do what we parents can do better, we?re losing the battle not just over the culture of the nation, but more importantly over the culture within our own neighborhoods and within our homes.

The key to changing our culture is to take action where we can, rather than waiting for government to do what it cannot do. Our dollars and choices can make vulgar enterprises and entertainers poor. That?s what they fear most. And we can reward better ones.

Henry David Thoreau said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately?" Follow Thoreau?s advice, not by fleeing into the woods, but by living deliberately. And by spending entertainment dollars and determining what you watch and listen to with some deliberation.

What You Can Do

Now, I have my suspicions that you?re not that big a purchaser of Janet Jackson?s music. Have no fear. You?re in a very target-rich environment.

If Jackson baring her breast in front of your family offended you, why not stop watching CBS until CBS has a clue? Why not reject any product produced by Viacom, the parent company of both MTV and CBS? Why not refuse to watch the first few games of next year?s NFL season?

A 5 or 10 percent drop in viewership would ensure that we never see such a halftime show again.

Then drop a line to these dropped businesses. Explain just exactly why you are doing what you?re doing.

But don?t fret if you?re just too busy to give them a piece of your mind. Others will have joined you. And the people who broadcast shows and commercials are surprisingly smart people when it comes to making dough; they?ll figure it out in no time after a call from their accountant.

You have more power in your TV remote and the dollars in your pocket than you do with your vote for candidate A or B?or by calling your congressman, for heaven?s sake. Use your power. Not next November at the polls, but now, today, and every day.

When you turn on your TV or take out your wallet or pocketbook to purchase entertainment, your vote really does matter.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.