Sins of the flesh

Six months after Janet Jackson bared her breast for 1.7 seconds on live TV, draconian censorship and huge fines have changed the face of American broadcasting - and polarised the country. But the entertainment industry is fighting back
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The Independent US

As obscenity goes, a flash of female breast is hardly worth bothering with. Magazines from Vogue to Heat show them all the time. Barely veiled bosoms are on view on young women in cities the world over.

As obscenity goes, a flash of female breast is hardly worth bothering with. Magazines from Vogue to Heat show them all the time. Barely veiled bosoms are on view on young women in cities the world over.

But this is the story of one exposed nipple that shook the world. It has been impossible to ponder the issue of public morality in America these past few months without wondering whether we aren't living in weird parallel universes. In the first, 2004 has been the year in which the United States was caught torturing prisoners in Iraq, was accused of lying about weapons of mass destruction, and was deemed to be violating the US constitution and international law by holding so-called "enemy combatants" indefinitely without trial.

In the second universe, none of these matters one jot: not as moral issues, anyway. In this universe - the province of cable television, talk radio and the strangely hermetic corridors of power in Washington - there has been only one noteworthy moral outrage in 2004, one thing to offend the consciences of decent citizens and make them despair of the nation's moral fibre.

We are talking, of course, of Janet Jackson's prime-time breast exposure during the Super Bowl, the climax of the American gridiron football season, watched by tens of millions of unsuspecting citizens splayed in front of their television screens with bottles of Coke and large bowls of popcorn.

It has been almost exactly six months since Jackson's singing partner, Justin Timberlake, ripped open the front of her leather stage outfit to reveal - for precisely 1.7 seconds - the infamous naked mammary gland and its equally infamous adornment, a starburst-motif silver nipple-shield that one commentator waggishly described at the time as an "Aztec hubcap".

As cable news stations replayed the footage again and again, with a variety of pixel-warping techniques to blur the offending body part, righteous commentators ranted about how shocked they were, how awful this must have been for parents with children watching at home, how low America's moral sense of itself had sunk.

And that was just the start of it. Within hours, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a government body previously noted mostly for the dry business of allocating broadcast licences, was denouncing what he called "a classless, crass and deplorable stunt" and promising a full investigation, with appropriate sanctions to match. Within days, the lawsuits began flying - including one from a Tennessee bank employee claiming, on behalf of "all Americans", that la Jackson and her partner had caused "outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury".

Within a month, the issue had been taken up by Congress. The more conservative House of Representatives had no compunction in voting to increase the maximum fine for indecency on the airwaves from $27,500 to $500,000 (£275,000). The Senate - more moderate, but still tilted towards President Bush's Republican Party - took until June to make its pronouncement, recommending a smaller but still tenfold increase to $275,000 per infraction. The 99-1 vote on the Senate floor was, intriguingly, rolled into a package of measures on military expenditure.

More chilling than any of these legislative initiatives, though, has been both the censoring and the self-censoring effect on broadcasters, particularly those in the not-for-profit sector, who are scared out of their wits about being closed down or fined into bankruptcy. The Senate quite literally voted for silencers for the military, and silencers for the media, too.

The most immediate effect was on the radio, where the shock jock Howard Stern found himself square in the FCC's gun-sights - and responded by dropping his proclivity for sexual dirty talk in favour of a 12-bore daily barrage of attacks on the Bush administration. A Florida broadcaster called Bubba the Love Sponge also felt the heat. Between them, the two men and their broadcasting employers racked up more than $1m in fines - more than the FCC had doled out in the previous 10 years.

Television also felt the flames. A week after the nipple-baring, the long-running hospital drama ER decided to excise a shot of an elderly cancer patient's breast. An episode of the comedy That '70s Show in March was preceded by a parental warning because of a scene in which one character catches another - who remains off-camera - masturbating.

The bleeping of three expletives from an episode of a new Public Broadcasting Service show, Cop Shop, incited the frustration of its star, Richard Dreyfuss, who said the language was entirely in keeping with the context of his character, a lonely New York policeman seeking solace in a brothel.

The producers of the hit youth drama show The OC were told not to show a female character having an orgasm (though that of her boyfriend, strangely, was allowed to pass). And a reality show, The Casino, ran into trouble with the network censors at Fox because of an incident in which a male character had a Crying Game moment and realised that his prospective sexual partner was rather more completely endowed than he had imagined.

Is it really plausible that America has been washed by a spontaneous wave of puritan righteousness, or is something trickier going on? Jackson's real misfortune may not have been what she called a "wardrobe malfunction" so much as the fact that it occurred at the start of the most contentious election year in memory.

From the start, she suspected that the outrage vented against her was deliberately manufactured - by the Republican Party and its more overt supporters in the media - as a distraction from the very damaging news then coming in about Iraq's clear lack of weapons of mass destruction. That week, President George Bush's own weapons inspector, David Kay, had reported back that the Iraqi cupboard of chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities was entirely bare. While the Janet débâcle was in full swing, the President took advantage of the breast chatter to announce a politically uncomfortable Congressional investigation into the uses and possible misuses of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Since then, Janet and all she implies have continued to be a convenient distraction from weightier issues. On the one hand, the Republicans can play into the cultural and moral divide their supporters denote by the shorthand word "values". On the eve of last month's Democratic National Convention in Boston, pro-Bush protesters held up a sign at a John Kerry campaign stop in Ohio reading: "Who shares your values?" - alongside pictures of Monica Lewinsky, Howard Stern, Whoopi Goldberg (who made genitalia jokes about the President at a fundraiser) and the outspokenly anti-Bush comedian and writer Al Franken.

The implication couldn't be more clear: America is battling to save its moral soul against a Sodom and Gomorrah of godless Hollywood garishness. In this world, Bill Clinton is an irredeemable sinner and John Kerry is - worse still - French. As long as the political debate is consumed by such nonsense, the chances of Iraq, or the budget deficit, or the lack of affordable healthcare, becoming the topic of the moment are considerably diminished.

The shadow of Janet Jackson also has the secondary effect of intimidating the broadcast media - especially that part that might ordinarily be inclined to rail against the sanctimonious puritanism of the religious right. The FCC chairman, Michael Powell - incidentally, the son of the Secretary of State, Colin Powell - has done little to argue against the allegation that such intimidation is part of what's going on. The FCC has happily blasted one broadcaster after another with fines (particularly Clear Channel, a big supporter of President Bush that nevertheless hosted the likes of Howard Stern) and threatened many more.

The effect in some quarters has been almost comical. Several stations have stopped playing Prince's "Erotic City", with its playful but dangerous "I want to funk you up" refrain. An Indianapolis station has started bleeping even words such as "urinate", "damn" and "orgy".

This being an election year, however, the broadcasters are fighting back. Howard Stern has been particularly incendiary, calling Powell "a boob and jerk" in a recent outburst. "Michael Powell is a guy you didn't vote for, a guy who got his job because his father works for the Bush administration... He's a crackpot, and I have said he's a crackpot." As Stern attracts an audience of eight million, his on-air haranguing has some Republican operatives worried that he has the power to swing a close election.

The executives are not taking the intimidating new atmosphere lying down, either. CBS, the network that broadcast the Super Bowl, reacted timidly at first, agreeing to delay live broadcasts of showbiz events by five seconds to forestall malfunctions, sartorial or otherwise. It also cancelled a television biopic on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, attracting the ire of many of the same grassroots Republicans who spilt their bile about Janet Jackson.

Now, however, CBS - particularly its top executive, Les Moonves - has found its teeth. When the FCC floated a figure of half a million dollars as an appropriate fine for CBS and its regional affiliates for what many have tagged "Nipplegate", Moonves said he would take the commission to court before paying a penny. He described the threat to freedom of speech as "perilously dangerous" and said it would be "grossly unfair" to penalise CBS for something that was clearly not the network's fault.

A handful of artists and musicians have gone further in condemning the Bush administration's approach. Powell may, in fact, be the first FCC chairman to inspire not one by two songs by well-known artists. The first, by the country rocker Steve Earle, a well-known activist for liberal causes, is called simply "F the FCC". Its chorus pulls no punches: "I can say anything I want/ So fuck the FCC/ Fuck the FBI/ Fuck the CIA/ I'm living in the motherfucking USA."

The second, by Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, draws from much the same inspirational well: "Fuck you very much, the FCC/ Fuck you very much for fining me/ 5,000 bucks a fuck/ So I'm really out of luck/ That's more than Heidi Fleiss was charging me."

Powell is an intriguing figure: much more conservative than his famously temperate father, and almost brazen in his willingness to pander to the powerful interests of the broadcast world while virtually ignoring the voices of consumer and public-advocacy groups. Famously, he told Senators at his confirmation hearing that he did not know how to define the public interest and that he had "waited up all night for the Angel of the Public Interest to visit with the answer, but she never came".

Since then - and particularly in light of his proposed deregulation of the airwaves, allowing an unprecedented degree of television and newspaper cross-ownership - a group of activists calling themselves the Angels of the Public Interest have dogged him at every public appearance. Powell has cancelled at least three public hearings at which they vowed to give him a verbal roasting.

Powell's definition of obscenity appears rather slippery - he once said he didn't need a lawyer to point it out to him because he knew it when he saw it. All fine and good - except that Bono's "fucking brilliant" at the 2003 Grammys was originally considered by his office to be OK (merely adverbial usage) but was then redefined as a finable offence. Similar confusions reign just about everywhere. "The problem is that the FCC is trying to enforce a standard that doesn't exist," the executive producer of That '70s Show, Jeff Filgo, said after his run-in with the censors. "It's almost like they're saying, 'What's indecency? That's for us to know and for you to find out.'"

The Bush administration's case was undermined when Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, was caught using highly abusive language on the Senate floor to advise a venerable Democrat to perform an anatomically impossible manoeuvre. The Republican rank and file rushed to Cheney's defence, saying he was merely letting off steam in a harmless way. But they have also taken a bit of a break from lording it over everyone else. The Vice-President is lucky that he didn't utter the fateful phrase on the radio. Or bare a nipple.

And as for Janet? Well, the album she released soon after the wardrobe malfunction, Damita Jo, sold poorly and is now being remarketed. She went on to spoof her exposure on Saturday Night Live and on the cover of the music magazine Blender. Last week, Jackson announced that she will play herself in a cameo on the hit television show Will and Grace.