Recycling the outrage

By Mark Follman
November 30, 2004 2:13AM (UTC)
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With red-state morality all the rage these days, the right-wing crusade to restore "decency" to the nation's airwaves carries on in earnest. In case you missed it over the holiday weekend, the New York Times' Frank Rich spent some time in his Sunday column taking apart "the great indecency hoax" of the far right:

"To see how the hucksters of the right work their scam, there could be no more illustrative example than the 'Monday Night Football' episode in which [Nicollette] Sheridan [of ABC's 'Desperate Housewives'] leaped into the arms of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in order to give the declining weekly game (viewership is down 3 percent from 2003) a shot of Viagra. From the get-go, it was a manufactured scandal, as over-the-top as a dinner theater production of 'The Crucible.'"


If ABC plotted a few seconds of titillation (Sheridan flashed a bit of backside -- no doubt a shock to all those football fans), the political right plotted some "outrage" to follow. Even if it took a couple days to work up.

"Rush Limbaugh," Rich wrote, "taking a break from the legal deliberations of his drug rap and third divorce, set the hysterical tone. 'I was stunned!' he told his listeners

"Though seen nationwide, and as early as 6 p.m. on the West Coast, the spot initially caused so little stir that the next morning only two newspapers in the country, both in Philadelphia, reported on it. ABC's switchboards were not swamped by shocked viewers on Monday night. A spokesman for ABC Sports told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hadn't received a single phone call or e-mail in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast.


"Even the stunned Mr. Limbaugh, curiously enough, didn't get around to mounting his own diatribe until Wednesday. Mr. Owens's agent, David Joseph, says that the flood of complaints at his office and Mr. Owens's Web site also didn't start until more than 24 hours after the incident -- late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Were any of these complainants actual victims (or even viewers) of 'Monday Night Football' or were they just a mob assembled after the fact by 'family' groups, emboldened by their triumph in smiting 'Saving Private Ryan' from 66 ABC stations the week before? Though the F.C.C. said on Wednesday that it had received 50,000 complaints about the N.F.L. affair, it couldn't determine how many of them were duplicates -- the kind generated by e-mail campaigns run by political organizations posting form letters ready to be clicked into cyberspace ad infinitum by anyone who has an index finger and two seconds of idle time."

As Rich points out, Michael Powell's FCC, hapless at best, isn't too hip to the shenanigans of cyberspace.

"The F.C.C. and the family values crusaders alike are cooking their numbers. The first empirical evidence was provided this month by Jeff Jarvis, a former TV Guide critic turned blogger. He had the ingenious idea of filing a Freedom of Information Act request to see the actual viewer complaints that drove the F.C.C. to threaten Fox and its affiliates with the largest indecency fine to date -- $1.2 million for the sins of a now-defunct reality program called 'Married by America.' Though the F.C.C. had cited 159 public complaints in its legal case against Fox, the documents obtained by Mr. Jarvis showed that there were actually only 90 complaints, written by 23 individuals. Of those 23, all but 2 were identical repetitions of a form letter posted by the Parents Television Council. In other words, the total of actual, discrete complaints about 'Married by America' was 3."


Meanwhile, as Jarvis notes today, satellite radio may be next on the hit list. And don't forget about America's ultimate "sin-delivery system."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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