A mountain out of a molehill, but a lesson learned

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Who'd have thought there would come a day when Michael wasn't the most embarrassing Jackson? He ought to send Janet a note: "Thanks for the mammary." Because the mammary has sure taken the heat off him.

Two weeks later, the -- you should pardon the expression -- fallout from Janet's Super Bowl strip show continues. Since then, we've seen ER blur out a glimpse of an elderly woman's breast as she lay on a gurney, doctors fighting for her life. There's talk that ABC's cop drama NYPD Blue might edit a forthcoming sex scene for those parts of the country where the program airs at nine.


MTV has banished some of its more sexually explicit videos to late-night hours. The FCC wants to increase the fines it levies against broadcasters who violate decency standards. And TV producers are said to be rethinking some of the coarser images and language of their programs.

Some folks will tell you this is overkill. Others, that it's television finally taking responsibility for itself. Truth is, it's both.


Overkill? Well, yeah, it is rather silly to equate Ms. Jackson's bid for attention with an incidental shot of an 80-year-old woman's chest on a late-night medical drama for adults. Reminds me of the 1997 incident in which Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma blasted NBC for airing a movie that featured "vile language and full-frontal nudity."

He was talking about Schindler's List.

And beg pardon, but anyone who sees sexual titillation in the image of naked men, women and children being herded to their deaths has problems beyond my ability to fathom.

Point being that not all breasts are created equal. That's something we'd do well to keep in mind during the current furor.

We cannot, nor should we seek to, return to the 1950s, when Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds and "pregnant" was a dirty word.

On the other hand, it hardly breaks my heart that MTV feels constrained to push some of its rump-shaker videos back to the wee hours. The Jackson action has broadcasters thinking about something they too rarely seem to consider. Meaning their obligation to the public they serve. Call it a course correction. Or, if you prefer, a coarse correction.

Either way, it stems from Ms. Jackson's fundamental miscalculation of what she could get away with. She failed to appreciate that this wasn't late night, it wasn't cable and it wasn't a forum in which naked bosom could reasonably be predicted. It was -- hello? -- the Super Bowl! Ms. Jackson sucker-punched Middle America.

Now Middle America is punching back, to the tune of 200,000 complaints to the FCC. And the barons of the entertainment media are paying attention.


There's a lesson here. From the Hays Office that oversaw the film industry beginning in the 1920s to the Comics Code Authority that regulated the comic book industry beginning in the 1950s to former Broward County, Fla., Sheriff Nick Navarro's jihad against 2 Live Crew in the 1990s, the nation has a long history of trying to control artistic expression through censorship. But that invariably becomes ineffectual and ridiculous. A thing as fluid and open as art can't be contained by something as hard and unyielding as rules.

The force that most effectively regulates pop culture is not censorship, but indignant people making phone calls, firing off letters and e-mails. In a democracy, there is no force greater.

We forget that sometimes, forget to be angry and let somebody know it. We forget the power that resides with us, forget that where there are no buyers, there can be no sellers.

I don't know if that frequently relearned lesson will take, even now. I do know that a chastened Ms. Jackson has largely disappeared from public view amid speculation the stunt damaged her career.

And yeah, it may well be that the nation will forget the lesson learned here. But I'm reasonably certain she never will.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.