The Federal Communications Commission, spurred by the shocking “wardrobe malfunction” exposing Janet Jackson’s breast during this year’s Super Bowl, has handed down several rulings tightening restrictions on the media. On March 18 the FCC reversed a previous ruling absolving NBC of responsibility for a vulgarity used by U2 lead singer Bono during last year’s Golden Globe Awards. The public outcry after the Super Bowl also prompted Clear Channel Communications to drop Howard Stern’s edgy radio show from six cities in early March.
Does this government-supported crackdown on television and radio represent a disturbing inroad on the right to free speech? Absolutely not. MTV’s halftime show slip up at the Super Bowl has simply served to focus much needed scrutiny on the questionable programming that is being broadcast on America’s airwaves.
Lurid sexual content on Howard Stern’s radio show, an exposed breast during the Super Bowl, expletives at the Golden Globe awards: these incidents are not about freedom of speech. Indeed, television and radio stations are free to criticize the government and advocate unpopular views. These incidents fall under the label of a perceived but nonexistent right: the freedom of entertainment. Adherents of this right believe that anything — no matter how violent, obscene or sexually explicit — can be broadcast on radio and television at any time.
As a democracy, it is absolutely essential that we vigorously defend freedom of speech. But as a society, it is equally essential that we curtail freedom of entertainment. John Stuart Mill insisted on freedom of speech, arguing that an open “marketplace of ideas” allows the truth to inevitably emerge. Yet the parallel “marketplace of entertainment” can have disastrous consequences for a society. In a marketplace of entertainment, media outlets hungry for higher ratings and revenues engage in an aggressive battle for the American audience. These broadcasters understand that “sex sells,” and they increasingly supplement their programming with sex, violence and meaningless melodrama to win fickle viewers from rival stations. The marketplace of entertainment gives rise to an alarming trend of one-upmanship, with content slowly but surely becoming more profane.
The results of America’s marketplace of entertainment can clearly be seen in today’s media. Consider some of the more popular programs on television today. There is NBC’s “Fear Factor,” where scantily clad women compete in pointless and disgusting challenges. There is MTV’s “Real World,” a show about a handful of misguided twentysomethings who spend their days drinking alcohol, having sex, and fighting with each other. And there is the Super Bowl halftime show, which would have been tasteless and sexually explicit even if Janet Jackson’s breast had remained covered.
Some may insist that these shows are harmless entertainment. Yet television is a potent medium that plays an important role in shaping the values and norms of modern societies. Television does not simply entertain — it teaches a certain way of life to its viewers. Other countries have recognized both the possibilities and dangers of this medium. For example, in early March a Middle Eastern television station attempted to launch a version of the popular reality show Big Brother. After a male and female contestant on the show kissed, thousands of protestors took to the streets chanting “No to indecency” and politicians condemned the show as an assault on traditional values. These protestors understand something that many Americans do not: amoral and meaningless television programming will almost certainly have a negative influence on society.
What, then, should be done about the spiraling indecency of American television and radio programming. First and foremost, citizens must insist on higher quality programming from their media providers and on more stringent safeguards to protect children from indecent material. Secondly, broadcasters must take more responsibility for the content of their programming. In this case the standard capitalist cop-out — “We’re just trying to stay competitive by giving the people what they want” — is both irresponsible and dangerous. Finally, the government must step in to regulate media content. Government control over speech always sets off alarms — and indeed it should. Nevertheless, the FCC should rigorously enforce existing laws against television obscenity and indecency, even while the courts closely monitor its actions for violations of free speech.
Perhaps most importantly, however, individuals must take a stand against media vulgarity in their own homes. Yes, TV can be addictive, particularly when programming targets a fundamental human propensity for sex, violence and drama. As individuals we must be willing to turn a critical eye on the messages that our televisions are sending and as individuals we must have the force of will to turn off the television when that message becomes detrimental. In the end, government control, media responsibility and consumer advocacy are inadequate solutions. Meaningful change will occur only when individuals decide to place morality and decency before their desire for entertainment.
Steven Starr is a junior in Saybrook College.