Moral issues in broadcasting

Janet's not the only problem

By Ben Turner
December 03, 2004

The issue of morality is oft-discussed in American politics. It has been a rallying point since the Clinton era, drawing voters and protestors around a handful of issues.

As conservatives with “moral agendas” gather strength in Washington, it is frightening to think of what might happen to gay rights, abortion rights and stem-cell research. However, the most reactionary work in the name of morality is not Bush’s doing; it is the increasing censorship exercised by conservative watchdog groups in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission.

Since Janet Jackson horrified the world with a partially exposed nipple at Super Bowl XXXVIII, there has been a witch-hunt for obscenity on television. The media’s obsession with Janet Jackson’s nipple fueled the conservative base and provoked self-righteous outrage. CBS was fined $550,000 for broadcasting the nudity at the halftime show, and there was then a wave of smaller fines against radio and television stations for indecent and obscene material.

Shortly after the Super Bowl incident, a congressional panel approved legislation to increase the maximum fine for “indecency” on TV or radio, and the FCC has been moving to regulate cable and satellite as well as broadcast networks.

Many ABC-affiliated stations did not follow the tradition of broadcasting an unedited version of “Saving Private Ryan” on Veterans’ Day, out of fear of fines from the FCC due to the film’s “indecency.” Conservative Christian groups, such as the American Family Association, sent in massive numbers of complaints to the FCC and ABC before Veterans’ Day in order to terrorize the stations into showing reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Although “Saving Private Ryan” is certainly violent and contains profanity, it was not unreasonable programming for Veterans’ Day. There were enough warnings about the violence and language that any easily offended person could decide that the program was unsuitable and not watch it. There is certainly no need to bring fines or the government into play regarding this film.

Regardless of whether the movie is indecent or profane, is it really the place of the American Family Association, a group that is also organizing a boycott of Disney for promoting homosexuality, to speak for the American people? Self-righteous conservative groups are again on the front lines fighting the freedom of speech and separation of church and state, trying to dictate what people should be allowed to see, hear and buy. These groups are not only threatening constitutional rights, they are diverting attention from the real moral issues in American society.

The battle for morality should not be about a nipple or bad language; it should be about corporate crime, human rights abuses in Iraq and government accountability and honesty. There are clearly more important moral issues than indecency. I am sure that little Timmy has recovered from seeing a nipple at the Super Bowl and will be a well-adjusted adult in due time. The morality of our corporations and our moral stance in Iraq are not so clear. One would think that a Christian group would be more interested in clear-cut problems such as torture, theft and corruption that plague our society rather than superficial concerns. This is where politics come into play.

Conservative groups’ preoccupation with indecency allows them to ignore moral issues which may not mesh so well with conservative doctrine. Dealing with corporate abuses would involve regulating businesses, and admitting error on a large scale in Iraq is not plausible for conservatives. It is much easier to attack Hollywood and remain self-righteously convinced of the morality of the conservative right.

Ben Turner is a sophomore at Tulane College majoring in international relations and international development. He can be reached at

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Updated 04/24/05