Return of sex casts a long shadow over the news

March 8, 2004

Suddenly, sex was back. For a few weeks those perplexing matters of war, plague, taxes and even interplanetary travel were shoved off the national stage. Instead we got sex and more sex.

It started with the unscheduled appearance of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. That was a big deal. Some people were offended, and those who missed the original offense by blinking got caught up when the scene was rerun hundreds of times, with the breast blurred to avoid giving offense, naturally.

Television learned once again that it could profit both by throwing a punch and by covering the brawl that ensued.

The return of sex continued then through the congressional scolding of TV executives, who shuffled to Capitol Hill to profess dismay and disgust.

Then came the torrid affair that John Kerry didn’t have. Once more, issues such as the deepening federal deficit, President Bush’s military record and the path to abandoning Iraq with honor were swept off the nation’s bedspread so the public could grapple with its old flame, carnal indulgence.

Clear Channel, the world’s biggest radio network, awoke from what apparently was a corporate coma to discover that Howard Stern, the country’s most listened-to radio personality, has a morning talk show dripping with sexual content. Clear Channel dropped him from its stations, its CEO declaring that he was “ashamed to be in any way associated with [Stern’s] words.”

The Federal Communications Commission threatened fines totaling $755,000 for Stern’s obscenities. They purportedly dated back to 2001; evidently the FCC was waiting for the right moment to take action.

Again, network executives appeared before Congress to profess dismay and disgust. They promised to introduce taped delays on live broadcasts, just in case some guest does something lewd. ABC said it would post program ratings after each commercial break, which in the current deregulated environment means more or less constantly.

The spectacle of corporate contrition reminds us of a deeper paradox of media power: The bigger and mightier the media organization, the wider the range of interests state meddling may harm, and the greater the organization’s sensitivity to government criticism. Hence, faced with congressional discomfort, the network response was immediate: Capitulation.

But the re-emergence of sex wasn’t confined to on-air improprieties. There is the issue of whether states should grant to unions of same-sex couples the same legal standing conferred on heterosexual marriage.

Blocking that possibility warrants, in the judgment of our president, amending the Constitution. And in the judgment of the news media, it warrants daily news footage of gay weddings conducted illicitly in the breakaway province of San Francisco.

Viewers who aren’t permitted to see a clear shot of Janet Jackson’s breast and can’t listen as Howard Stern quizzes some bimbo about the weirdest place she ever did it can at least watch news footage of brides giving each other big wet kisses (the networks being, for some reason, more eager to show lesbians smooching than homosexual guys.)

But what is it with all this sex? Is licentiousness so widespread that it deserves such high-level attention? Does the society really face an assault on its core values? Is discord over sexual mores truly one of our society’s most profound fault lines?

Or is there a more likely reality, one that has to do less with the collapse of moral values than with the collapse of news values?

Maybe what this sex resurgence suggests is that market-driven news — which already has no incentive to distinguish the public interest from what interests the public — can’t be relied on to perform one of the key functions of the news: setting the public agenda.

So the world’s most influential media play around endlessly with a bone-headed moment of televised nudity, while a neighboring democracy is subverted and destroyed, the people of a country we conquered are busy killing each other, and a dozen matters of incomparably greater significance than a naked nipple slide away from public concern.

That’s something that those who seek to manipulate the public would be wise to remember. For all the talk of news media that are tough-minded and adversarial, they’re run by people who are in a nonstop fight for audiences. And nothing sells like sex.

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