The Third Circuit Court of Appeals last week dismissed the $550,000 indecency fine against CBS in the wake of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. The judges rightly ruled that the FCC had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in fining CBS.
Easy enough to laugh off, right? Not really. Because the thing is, the FCC's holy war against Janet Jackson's breast was always something of a red herring meant to distract us from ... well, the FCC's larger holy war. It was about using a tacky moment on live TV (accidental or not) to attempt to not only block future glimpses of ungodly human flesh from broadcast TV, but to infantilize us all with a vastly expanded censorship system. Emboldened by the Jackson breast-flash, the FCC went on a tear. Most notably, in 2006, Congress, at the prompting of the FCC, passed a measure increasing fines per "indecent" incident by a factor of 10, from $32,500 to $325,000.
Who decides what's indecent? Well, for one, the chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin, an under-qualified baby-faced patronage hire -- he got his gig not only as a reward for serving on Bush's 2000 Florida recount team, but working for Monica Lewinsky fetishist Ken Starr. Martin, from the start, has chosen to rely on faulty intelligence -- manufactured outrage. One example: NBC's "Las Vegas" at one point had some 134,000 viewer complaints against it for a supposedly indecent scene. Guess where something like 99.9% of those complaints came from? Members of a single religious-right organization, the American Family Association.
The net effect of this nonsense has been chilling. For instance, in 2002, CBS aired a gritty, critically-acclaimed documentary about 9/11. Four years later, dozens of CBS affiliates declined to rebroadcast it because they feared $325,000 fines each time a firefighter in the documentary swore.
The more upsetting thing, though, is that the FCC's holy war has actually also been a red herring for the FCC's other main agenda under Martin: coddling big media. While pretending to protect the public trust of the airwaves, Martin & Co. generally have been relaxing rules that pave the way for further concentrations of media power in fewer and fewer hands.
The hilarious, pathetic thing is that Martin just isn't smart enough to have seen the inherent conflict. In the end, you can't fight "indecency," whatever that is, by giving more power to amoral media giants. I mean, geez, News Corp. is run by Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the smuttiest, most libertine mainstream broadcaster of all time -- a guy who would get regularly burned in effigy by Martin's Christian-right buddies if they weren't so in love with Rupert's Fox News hate-fest (where you can tune in to hear things the FCC doesn't find obscene -- like pundits joking about the assassination of Barack Obama). And, duh, somehow the FCC forgot that in attacking NBC, it was attacking parent company GE -- with its close ties to the Bush-Cheney military-industrial complex.
Oh, Kevin Martin. Poor, poor Kev. Working in Ken Starr's hothouse, you really thought that guys like you, once you took control of the government, really could rule the world. That's so adorable! Somehow you thought you could give away the store to media conglomerates -- the new corporate nation-states of our global information economy -- and make them behave!
But get a clue: Rupert Murdoch et al. are the bosses of you, little fella -- not the other way around.