Behind the media's new propriety

From Super Bowl antics to Howard Stern's racy shows, an 'indecency' crackdown is part grass roots, part politics.

In the weeks of introspection that have followed the spectacle of Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl debacle, the American entertainment industry is searching not just its airwaves, but its soul.

Last week, the nation's largest radio company, Clear Channel, dumped "shock jock" Howard Stern's program, calling the shows "vulgar, offensive, and insulting." Both ABC and CBS have ordered producers to alter the sexually explicit material of some programs. And MTV has said it will move some of its most popular and explicit programming to later in the night.

Even Sunday's Oscars broadcast was transmitted with a five-second delay to censor bad language or suggestive behavior.

The new propriety is a direct response to pressure from Capitol Hill, say experts, where lawmakers have held indignant hearings scolding the entertainment industry, and a subcommittee has advanced a bill to raise indecency fines tenfold to $275,000.

While the crackdown was surely prompted by the Super Bowl's busty blunder, most say the Washington maelstrom is more realpolitick than reformist zeal.

With public fury rising, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and broadcasters are under more direct pressure from legislators on Capitol Hill, many of them conservative Republicans alighting on an issue sure to mobilize the party's core social-conservative base.

"This is red meat for social conservatives," says Matt Baum, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Since moving to the center may do them no good, this may be part of a different campaign strategy."

Election-year media swipes date back at least to the Nixon administration, when Vice President Spiro Agnew argued that major TV networks showed a liberal bias in news coverage and programming. Most famously, Vice President Dan Quayle complained in 1992 that the TV show "Murphy Brown" promoted bad values when its title character had a baby out of wedlock.

This time, too, the atmospherics have in part been set by the administration and an escalating culture war on issues from gay marriage to stem-cell research. The media finger wagging, say experts, was sure to follow the quadrennial calendar once more.

"This is part of a returning cycle of sound and fury about decency," says Dr. Baum.

Most of the moral indignation is coming directly from Congress. But in a climate where the media knows it's being watched, say experts, stations are also trying to prove they can watch themselves - and avoid the soaring fines.

Others, though, see this moral reckoning as buckling to a form of censorship, an acceptance of perilous and arbitrary limits to freedom of speech.

The removal of Mr. Stern's program - spurred by a show last week that included racial slurs and references to anal sex - is the most obvious sign of entertainment executives taking note and cracking down. Clear Channel had broadcasted Stern's program for years, in which time the show's content had hardly changed. But after CBS, owned by Viacom, aired the Super Bowl performance in which Justin Timberlake revealed Janet Jackson's breast, Viacom president Mel Karmazin was harangued by a congressional committee. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Viacom owns Clear Channel. It does not.]

Mr. Karmazin soon ordered all of Viacom's radio stations to prevent indecent material from reaching the airwaves.

Some say the timing is also rooted in the evolution of the TV industry itself.

The growing success of cable, which is far less regulated by the federal government and has a higher threshold for indecency, has prompted the top television networks to take more chances with programming; MTV was entrusted with producing this year's Super Bowl halftime show for CBS.

"Networks have felt the pressure to compete with cable," says Jay Goodman, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Mass. "The best way to do that is to adopt their standards."

Jim Steyer, head of San Francisco media watchdog group Common Sense Media, admits that the issue is in the forefront because of politics. But he believes that, even if some treat the issue cynically, the overall attention will help get more people involved at the grass roots.

"There is a real genuine sense that enough is enough," says Mr. Steyer, "and that we have slid down the slippery slope in the entertainment arena. We'll keep the pressure up during the election year, and in the mean time, we hope a group of parents and concerned Americans will form around this."

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