Big Brother -- or Big Daddy?

Someone should remind the people now exploiting Janet Jackson's boob -- Washington politicians -- that most TV programming is democratically elected.

Published February 12, 2004 5:27PM (EST)

Most of us start our life sucking one, but at some point, at least according to the FCC and the House Telecommunications Committee, the very sight of a breast is enough to poison our minds and cause untold damage. That's the message of the hearings Wednesday during which Viacom president Mel Karmazin and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue were grilled over the appearance of Janet Jackson's boob during the Super Bowl halftime show.

The hearings were a predictable mixture of contrition (on the part of Karmazin and Tagliabue) and election-year posturing on the part of FCC chairman Michael "I Never Met a Media Conglomerate I Didn't Like" Powell and the congressmen involved. Nobody was as ready for her close-up as Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., her voice quaking with outrage as she said, "You knew what you were doing. You wanted us all to be abuzz. It improves your ratings. It improves your market share, and it lines your pockets." (If Wilson is going to pontificate on what's aesthetically offensive, then someone should tell her that green plaid suits look terrible on everybody but OutKast.)

No one, though, has yet commented on the contradiction inherent in Wilson's statement. If this kind of entertainment improves ratings, market share and profits, then it suggests that the people who want it dwarf the 200,000 who lodged complaints about it. If it's the government's job to listen to the voice of the people, then we have to acknowledge that the number of people who buy, download or listen to Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, Nelly, P. Diddy and Kid Rock far exceed those who'd prefer the halftime show go back to Carol Channing and marching bands.

While the rage over Tittygate has, like the rage over many other social issues, been driven by an extremely vocal minority, it would be dishonest to imply that the allies of those people exist solely in the Bush administration and on the Republican side of the congressional aisle. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has done as much to bring the specter of government censorship over media as anyone (he's the man who wanted to mandate the V chip), spoke up for increasing the fines against broadcasters who violate FCC rules. "It is increasingly clear the paltry fines the FCC assess have become nothing more than a joke," Markey said yesterday. And he got a witness from the exquisitely named John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who said that even increasing the fines tenfold, as some have proposed, represent a paltry amount to the bottom line of a company like Viacom.

All of this would be laughable if it weren't so scary. One of the most persistent refrains in Wednesday's hearings was the threat to regulate the content of cable networks as well as their broadcast counterparts. What that means is that the government is now proposing to control the content of channels that private citizens choose to come into their homes. (The only sensible talk seemed to come from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who proposed that cable companies allow consumers to pick exactly which channels they want to receive instead of getting the basic package that most cable companies offer. In other words, if you don't want to watch something, don't.)

Meanwhile, the offended continue to bleat about being "forced" to watch indecent programming, as if their television sets somehow came without off buttons, or as if MTV veejays were breaking into their homes and forcing them at gunpoint to watch TRL. Sure, it makes for easy pandering during an election year. But it's time we stopped coddling those people, time they were made to understand that citizenship means the responsibility of making their own choices instead of trying to get government to make the choices for them. It's not Big Brother they want -- it's Big Daddy.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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