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On the day that Justin Timberlake ripped open Janet Jackson’s blouse during the half-time of the Super Bowl to reveal a bejeweled breast and create a national firestorm of protest, American Soldiers 523 and 524 died in Iraq. Along with the two American soldiers, 14 were wounded. Also that day, two suicide bombers killed more than 100 Kurds and wounded more than 200.
Back in the United States, CBS, which broadcast the game, MTV which produced the half-time show, and Viacom, which owns both CBS and MTV, said they were shocked and outraged that Timberlake and Jackson would do such a despicable act. The NFL said it was "embarrassed." The two singers claim the blouse-ripping was the result of a "wardrobe malfunction." The network, of course, said little about the crotch-grabbing rump-slapping other parts of the show.
During the week after the Super Bowl, Americans sent more than 200,000 complaints to the FCC; it was almost as many as all the complaints for all alleged violations the previous year. FCC Chair Michael Powell, calling the half-time spectacle "deplorable," quickly launched the full resources of the FCC to investigate Jackson’s breast. Congressmen and senators groped prime time audiences to express their outrage against indecency on television, and demanded higher fines for flashing. The nation’s newspapers gave the story its front page, ran sidebars inside, and continued the story for days. TV news, talk, and entertainment shows constantly rebroadcast the offending one-second breast-baring, the flesh now pixilated or blurred. The half-time story became the most popular search topic on the internet; the clip, often bootlegged, became the most downloaded one in the internet’s history.
On TV network news and in fictionalized prime-time series, we see violence and body parts on the street. On the afternoon soaps, we have seen every violation of the Ten Commandments, and a few violations that not even the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah knew about. But, this didn’t draw the ire of the sanctimonious "family values" administration. A bare breast did.
Ratings draw advertising, which is what runs the nation’s media. With 90 million Super Bowl viewers, CBS could command $2.3 million per 30-second commercial, many of which pre-pubescent teens would say was a combination of "cool" and "gross." But, there isn’t much return on investment for stories of substance. Let’s take a look at some other stories that don’t cause much public outrage or get even a fraction of the coverage.
When President Bush announced he wanted to give legal status to illegal immigrants to be able to work in America, there weren’t 200,000 written complaints that this was a political maneuver to meet the bottom-line mentality of corporations pining for low-wage employment. The nation’s unemployment rate is now 5.6 percent, with most of the 8.3 million unemployed having been laid off or outsourced. Even the 8.3 million figure presented by the Department of Labor is much lower than the reality. By government standards, anyone working at least one hour a week is considered to be employed. The statistics also don’t consider that thousands of companies hire workers for only 30-35 hours a week in order to avoid having to pay benefits, or that hundreds of thousands of jobs are filled by persons who once worked at other companies for better benefits and higher pay before being laid off, or that about 300,000 Americans, after months of unemployment, have just given up and, thus, aren’t counted. One thing the statistics and projections do state_for the first time since the Great Depression, under Bush’s administration there will be a net loss of jobs. Where is the massive national outrage?
More than 40 million Americans don’t have health coverage, and the huge Bush deficit may force a cut-back in social security benefits. Those stories never received the news coverage that Janet Jackson’s bare breast received.
Per-pupil spending in the public schools has declined by more than four percent in the past two years, and the President’s educational budget is about $30 billion less than what he called for to provide less than one year’s support for his adventure in Iraq. The news media didn’t focus on that, and 200,000 people didn’t write the government to protest.
In his 2004 budget, Bush lopped off seven percent from the Environmental Protection Agency. Apparently the only ones who seem to care might be spotted owls, people whom the neoconservatives derisively call "tree huggers," and some "alarmists" who think hazardous materials in the water and air may not be the latest fad diet. Bush has also slashed $1.4 billion from human services budget, terminating about three dozen programs, including those for alcohol abuse reduction, arts in education, and several which target low-income youth. But, the media, if they even noticed, ran only small stories in their "B" sections.
Only in the past year has there been any kind of public outcry about the Patriot Act, a heavy-handed administration attempt to make Americans think it’s doing something about terrorism while doing little more than shredding the Constitution. But, ask the average American about what the Patriot Act does to his or her civil liberties, and you’ll get mumbling silence. Perhaps the million signatures the librarians and booksellers are soliciting might stimulate some news reporter’s sense of what’s important.
The President has taken some of the best National Guard troops to go to Iraq, leaving the states with fewer resources to help victims of natural disasters. But, floods in the Midwest and hurricanes along the Atlantic coast may not be as important to this president as his macho bravado photo-ops on aircraft carriers. After all, who’s going to protest sending military into a war zone_until their own safety is threatened, their homes are destroyed, or there is civil unrest and the local sheriff can’t handle it?
No government officials protested the loss of lives from a war that may have been started by a president who had a historical vendetta against another nation’s dictator. No administration officials complained about war-profiteering by Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s former company, which still pays him a six-figure annual income. Not many are irate enough to protest the administration’s stonewalling of an independent committee with a Presidential mandate to investigate the truth behind the Iraq War. The deaths of the Americans and Kurds were blocked from the front page banner headlines by the scandal of a semi-naked nipple. Because of the media exploitation, because politicians saw a chance to rant against indecency while mounting adulterous affairs, and because 200,000 Americans protested one second on network television, we have a crisis, and the full resources of this administration has been mobilized to handle it.
Almost every American knows who Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson are. Because of the media, and a vast ubiquitous publicity machine, we know the names and lives of dozens of celebrities, wanna-be’s, and even the "stars" of 20 hours of "reality TV" each week. Only a few know the names of the two Americans killed in Iraq the same afternoon as a half-time show.
Assisting on this column were Rosemary Brasch and Christine Varner.
Walt Brasch’s latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can (Feb. 2004), a witty and probing look at the nation’s media and entertainment industries. You may contact him through www.walterbrasch.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.