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CBS and the FCC: Is America Big Enough for Both?
by Jonathan David Morris
11 February 2004

Regardless of their intentions, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake took advantage of a captive audience.

According to Matt Drudge, FCC Chairman Michael Powell "considered holding a dramatic license revocation hearing against CBS" following Janet Jackson's sexual escapades with Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl halftime show.

I like how the Panthers and Patriots gave us one of the best championship games in years, and here we are, weeks later, talking about what happened in between halves. I say it's time we level with ourselves and recreate this yearly tradition. Instead of airing commercials around the Super Bowl, from now on let's air the Super Bowl around the commercials. And instead of calling it a Super Bowl, let's call it a Celebrity Sex Show. And halfway through the evening, the celebrities can take a break, and we can break out the groin cups for 30 minutes of nonstop football -- except instead of football we'll call it an afterthought.

Aren't we already halfway there?

I think so. I also think this is the kind of story that won't go away no matter how much we may want it to (though TiVo's numbers would seem to suggest we don't). In Tennessee, a woman has filed suit against CBS -- and fellow Viacom network MTV, which planned the halftime show -- saying Jackson and Timberlake's dirty pop caused her and about 90 million other viewers to "suffer outrage." [Editors' note: the lawsuit has since been dropped.] Meanwhile, MTV mainstay Carson Daly says this may be "the straw that broke the camel's back." He supposes, "Tolerance of this sort of sexual imagery may have reached its peak."

Personally, I'm just glad it's Janet we're talking about. It could've been worse. It could've been LaToya.

Regardless of their intentions, though, it can be said that Jackson and Timberlake took advantage of a captive audience. This is somewhat similar to musicians mouthing off about foreign policy in between sets at rock concerts -- it's not what they're saying, or the fact that they're saying it, but rather the forum they choose. On the other hand, concertgoers pay to see a performance, and whether the lead singer urinates on the crowd or the reputation of a president, people are essentially getting what they paid for. There's a big difference between Raffi and Gwar, and ticket holders know this going in. Conversely, CBS comes into your home, and it's assumed that -- in spite of the entertainment industry's lowest common denominator strategy -- you won't see topless pop stars on the same channel that broadcasts Blue's Clues.

And so it goes: Decency standards are equal parts valid and arbitrary. Like Alan Thicke wrote in the Diff'rent Strokes theme song, "What might be right for you, may not be right for some." When you subject an unsuspecting, captive audience to something beyond their comfort threshold, you threaten the extent to which they feel they're watching by choice.

We see this principle in play throughout the history of mass communication in America. Big Media routinely teams with Big Gov't to squash what M.I.T. professor Henry Jenkins calls a "participatory culture" -- this gives them control of the cost and flow of entertainment and news, and even control of how we react to it.

Take radio, for example. It was very much an amateur phenomenon, once upon a time, and to a fair extent self-regulated. Nevertheless, in 1912, the government stepped in and imposed regulations of its own. Amongst other things, they decided that the president could shut down radio stations in times of war. And, indeed, when the First World War tore across Europe two years later, the U.S. Navy policed the airwaves by order of Woodrow Wilson. When America entered the fray in 1917, the technology was fully and forever commandeered.

Seeking worldwide dominance in radio, the government nudged General Electric towards the creation of the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA, after the war -- its purpose being to consolidate radio patents and production. It was "a 'marriage of convenience' between private corporations and the government," according to the corporate history now posted on RCA's Web site. Indeed, commercial radio had arrived, and the amateurs were conveniently screwed.

And so, too, have we all been screwed in the decades since. Don't let the First Amendment fool you. Politicians can abridge free speech, and do through the FCC. They hijack technologies and use protectionist policies to play corporate interests against each other. In the '70s, the FCC came to the aid of its own broadcast networks, which feared the rise of cable TV. In the '80s, it relaxed a few rules and let cable systems grow, only to tighten things up again in the '90s.

This is what Big Gov't does. It oversees cycles of regulation, deregulation, and re-regulation. It perpetuates monopolies so as to someday knock them down. Why? Because leaders can't be leaders unless they have problems to solve. The war on drugs does the same thing with creating terrorism; the White House said so itself in a Super Bowl commercial two years ago. The media does it to some extent, too, building up folks like Howard Dean and Michael Jackson only to relish in their fall.

So now let's look at this in a current context. When the FCC voted to relax media ownership rules last summer, critics complained that mergers would put the dissemination of information in the hands of a select few gatekeepers. Their case in point: Last month, CBS rejected a Super Bowl ad by the Left-leaning activist group MoveOn.org (in which little kids are seen working to pay off George Bush's debt), and another by animal rights group PETA (in which eating meat is linked to male impotence). As MoveOn would have it, CBS's decision "hurts our democracy," because parent company Viacom appears to be seeking the favor of FCC Chairman Powell, who's got a parent of his own in the Bush administration, who might not like the fact that MoveOn is linked with anti-Bush billionaire George Soros.

Same goes for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. His company's "conservative bias" has been a hot topic ever since the ascendancy of Fox News. But these complaints are misguided. FNC found a market and catered to it, as any capitalist would do. There's nothing wrong with that. Where News Corp. is concerned, the devil is in the details.

In late '97 and early '98, Bill Kristol -- a regular face on Fox News -- made the case for an Iraqi regime change in the pages of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, and in a letter to then-President Clinton on behalf of the Project for the New American Century. The letter's other signatories included Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz -- all eventual members of the Bush administration. And when Bush at last brought America back to Iraq in 2003, Kristol again proved influential in the pro-war movement. And a few short months after taking Baghdad, Michael Powell -- Colin's son -- voted to relax media ownership rules to the benefit of men like Kristol's boss, Murdoch. When you look at this in context, it doesn't look good.

"That's fine," you say, "but what about capitalism?"

Well, what about it? Those who support deregulated media often do so in the name of free trade. Those who support regulation fear media monopolies. What's missed in all this is that neither situation works. As long as there's an FCC, there's going to be a government-run monopoly on mass communication. That, in itself, is anticompetitive. Our government is free to build-up News Corp. and Viacom, as it seems to be doing, and free to eventually break them down. What the God-State giveth, it can taketh away. Witness Powell's wanting to revoke CBS's license.

Like the kid who beats you up unless you do his homework, Big Gov't seizes every technological advance and makes it its own. They did it with radio and cable TV. They're doing it now with MP3s. They'll probably do it with weblogs in time for the Third World War. Make no mistake: Intellectual property is dead in this country. The fruits of creative labor belong to CEOs and lawyers now, to the detriment of artists and innovators. The entertainment industry and its State-sponsored enablers aren't just thieves; they're control freaks. And as long as Big Gov't has the power to stamp out or swallow media breakthroughs, lobbyists will make Washington the battleground in their partisan civil war.

Those concerned with the future of mass media shouldn't wrap themselves up in the regulation debate. They should seek to withdraw from the cycle entirely. No matter the relative strength of regulations, politicians retain the right to set the parameters. Until this changes, speech in this country will never be free. The names and faces may change from year to year, but the game will remain the same. Having played for so many years now, we ought to know the score.

Jonathan David Morris is a political satirist based in New Jersey. His website is Read JDM

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