America threatened by outbreak of taste!

Post-Littleton, post-Jenny, post-"I'm Proud to Be a Prostitute," the media, willing or not, are getting classy. Spare us.

Published June 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was just over a year ago that, amid the disillusion and rancor engendered by an impeachment battle in Washington, an ambitious young man named Stephen Glass taught America to laugh again. Far from acting alone, the New Republic fabricator was simply the most entertainingly outlandish in a series of journalistic supervillains -- liars, hypers, thieves -- and scandals that would continue through the summer with Mike Barnicle, Patricia Smith and the CNN/Time "Tailwind" debacle. It was the spring, and then the summer, of shame, and pretty soon we advance-ordered a whole series of calendars on the theme: We wondered what the media industry would do to top itself, but never doubted it would manage to.

So imagine our surprise that a year later the headlines are filled with media enterprises cleaning up their acts, or at least being handed a mop by the judge. Police perp walks for the cameras were struck down in court. Jenny Jones was hit with a $25 million judgment. The Supreme Court prevented reality-TV shows from accompanying police into private homes (and, just Tuesday, rejected a related appeal from CNN). TV episodes and entire series have been yanked for violence, while TV wrestling was essentially accused of murdering a man when wrestler Owen Hart died in a stunt accident: "Fatal fall blamed on competing cable shows," read one headline.

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And, in perhaps the ultimate back-breaker for ugly media, Jerry Springer was first restrained (the final episodes this season, such as "I'm Proud to Be a Prostitute," were pulled, creating a lucrative market for a new set of "Too Hot for TV" videos), then bowdlerized altogether, as his show's owner, Barry Diller's Studios USA, declared it would no longer air violent or profane "Springer" episodes. (The studio has made and backed off from such a declaration before.) Reruns, USA said, would be re-edited accordingly; I assume the resulting seconds-long episodes, consisting of the credits and Jerry's final thought, will be sandwiched into gaps between commercials on other shows.

We are, in other words, witnessing an outbreak of taste in the media, and if I fail to put scare quotes around the T-word it is because there are not enough quotation marks on all the keyboards in all the world to convey the sarcasm with which that term should be uttered here. On the side of the legal decisions, the judicial system is declaring "Fran 'paparazzi are slimeballs' Drescher, c'est moi" with regard to privacy vs. press rights. And the media, perhaps under the pressure of such decisions, are taking steps toward self-censorship in the name of appearances.

You can sum up this mind-set in one word: "post-Littleton." In media today, as my colleague James Aley e-mailed me recently, "post-Littleton" is becoming a universal shorthand for pusillanimous inoffensiveness. "Post-Littleton, do we really want to say his advisors 'shot down' the trial balloon? Post-Littleton, should we use a bomb in that graphic?" Pundits are sprinkling the phrase and its variants ("in the wake of Columbine ...") into their work like so much dehydrated Zeitgeist powder, to imply that some immutable, vaguely described change in society has occurred. But given the addlepated window-dressing decisions that have resulted, you have to wonder if "post-Littleton" isn't best translated as "for a couple months or so, until we bomb a new country and everyone forgets about it."

Take, for instance, CBS president Les Moonves' recent explanation of why the network canned its Mafia series "Falcone": "It's not the right time to have people whacked on the streets of New York." First, as an NYC resident, I anxiously wait for Moonves to let me know when my life is again expendable. (Fall 2000? During mid-season replacements?) Second, there's a root contradiction captured in Moonves' further explanation: "While it's not fair to blame the media for the rampage ... anyone who thinks the media has nothing do with this is an idiot. We felt a responsibility not to put it on now."

If in fact the media are truly culpable for violence (though I suspect the Mob's Hollywood-related recruitment boost likely plateaued in the '70s), why the need for those qualifiers: "It's not the right time ... put it on now"? I might be reading too much into the phrasing, but however genuine his emotion, Moonves' heart-cry captures perfectly the pointlessness of such media palliatives by building in its own escape clauses. In effect, it says that we in the media aren't to blame for these problems -- so we can't really do anything about them -- but we won't shirk our responsibility to ... to ... to do what? To act like we're doing something. To be inoffensive.

It's as if we're moving toward some Clintonian, ineffectual trade-off of free expression for security. No, not even security. Comfort. Quietude. I respect your feelings about guns, and you respect my feelings about vulgarity, and we both respect the other guy's feelings about tobacco or alcohol or sex, and in this potlatch of empty gestures we all tacitly agree that the primary purpose of the mass media, above all, is to avoid hurting anyone's feelings. The result's a trifecta: bad public policy, bad broadcasting and publishing, and probably ultimately bad business to boot.

Without defending Springer in particular, one can defend what his show stands for: a judgment-free ethos that has been better, not worse, for the overall media flow. I don't mean the argument that daytime talk shows have given disenfranchised classes a voice on the air. A lot of Springer criticism does smack of class bias -- one wonders why the term "trash TV" is so popular among white-collar elites -- but Jerry's hardly restored the working man's lost dignity, either. Still, Springer is a product of a television era in which smart, often taste-free material can also move from the fringes to the mainstream if it can pay its way: where Matt Groening can move from the Doms-Seeking-Submissives classifieds' neighborhood to 8 p.m. opposite "Touched by an Angel."

This country in general, and in particular its art form, television, don't do taste best. We do vulgarity, obscenity, rudeness: Philip Roth, Robert Crumb, pre-talk-show Roseanne. Many of our more decorous high artists, like Henry James, left the country. None of this, of course, is to say that Jerry Springer is an American artiste, but God help us if we start relying on Barry Diller or Les Moonves to discern the difference. Springer's show is undeniably scummy, but it's like the bacterial scum left after you brew a good beer. That is, it's the unavoidable byproduct of ferment. Without that, you've got nothing but water and grain, which you may recognize as the principal ingredients of white bread.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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