Topic: Sports &
Has too much been written and spoken about Janet Jackson's Superbowl
surprise already? At the risk of annoying those who want to scream "YES!!,"
Ethics Scoreboard must weigh in on what can only be called an ethics train
wreck. Let's recap the culprits, and their ethical offenses:
- Janet Jackson: The easy call. She violated the trust
of her employer, MTV, and the corporations that hired MTV, in order
to engage in blatant self-promotion. She was dishonest, disloyal, and
displayed no concern for any of many parties, including the TV audience,
who were going to be affected by her actions. It remains to be seen
if her unethical conduct and the resulting notoriety will hurt or help
her career, but we can only hope she benefits in no way from this stunt.
Yes, Ms. Jackson is unlikely to develop ethical sensibilities at this
late date. Perhaps some of her fans can learn from her mistake.
- Justin Timberlake (See January's Ethics Dunces)
- The NFL: As cogently argued by Washington Post sports
columnist Sally Jenkins, the NFL had this mess coming. For years, it
has promoted its games by appealing to the basest elements of our popular
culture: alcohol abuse, boorish behavior, blatant commercialism, sexual
exploitation and violence. By encouraging crude behavior inconsiderate
of others and offensive to many, the NFL chose to disregard its effect
on children and teenagers even while it laid claim to creating a "family
product." It was inevitable that the values of the NFL, in which promotion
and profit trumped any consideration of societal good, would lead it
to MTV and its "anything goes" mentality.
- CBS: It is testimony to how ethically bankrupt the
network has become that Ethics Scoreboard had to decide which CBS ethical
lapse to feature here. Should it be the despicable and journalistically
corrupt act of bartering for an exclusive interview with Ms. Jackson's
brother, by agreeing to air a laudatory prime-time special? Or ought
it to be the network's incredible denial that any quid pro quo existed?
This, of course, was consistent with CBS's earlier absurd insistence
that its decision not to run the controversial docudrama on the Reagans
had nothing to do with the organized pressure applied by conservative
CBS was eager to lard its Superbowl coverage with ads tasteless and
offensive as long as someone was willing to pay the astronomical fees,
with no concern for its audience, families, or children. It agreed
to an incestuous financial arrangement with Viacom sister channel
MTV, not caring that the music video channel would provide music video-style
entertainment featuring crotch-grabbing, dirty dancing, and suggestive
lyrics. Meanwhile, the network, currently fencing with Bush administration
regulators over the extent of its media holdings, chose to reject
a political ad by the administration-adverse website Move-On because
it was "inappropriate." Based on its recent record, it is fair to
say that the only reason CBS purports to be outraged at the Jackson
strip show is that it bombed. This is a network that has spurned journalistic
ethics, embraced conflicts of interest, tortured the truth, and, in
sum, stands for the proposition that the ends justify the means. William
Paley must be spinning like a top.
MTV: OK, MTV is about rock-and-roll, and rock-and-roll
is about rebellion. Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly, so one can
only go so far in condemning MTV for its role in sticking it to the
establishment…but: contracts are mutual agreements based
on trust, and MTV had an obligation to make certain that none of the
perpetual juveniles that performed in its name were going to embarrass
CBS and the NFL, no matter how richly they deserved it. We're not
talking about Gerald Ford, Wayne Newton or Norman Schwarzkopf here…these
are pop stars, who live on shock and depend on controversy. MTV was
the babysitter It blew off its responsibility, and violated its trust.
The fact that it shouldn't have been trusted in the first place is
a different issue.
These are the obvious villains in this drama, but the more lasting
damage may have come from a different source: the commentators, writers
and pundits who have taken the position that all the breast-beating
over Jackson's choreography is much ado about nothing. "Cross-Fire"
combatant Paul Begala was typical of this group, ridiculing FCC Chairman
Michael Powell's vow to seek penalties. "Americans are dying in Iraq,
people are out of work, and the administration is worried about a
naked breast? Come on!" he bleated.
Thus do some always relegate matters of propriety, public demeanor,
manners, gentility, dignity and regard for others to the back of the
line. There are always matters of life and death, and so there is
scant conduct so objectionable that they will not advocate "letting
it go" and "moving on" to the really important things: world peace,
the poor, the environment, racism, crime. And these are really important
things, but so are maintaining societal values, communicating them
to our children, and reinforcing them by expressing clear and unequivocal
disapproval when they are undermined.
Decades ago, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that the failure
to fix a broken window could accelerate a neighborhood's slide into urban
decay. The Jackson debacle is like a broken window in our neighborhood
of values, which has too many of them already. The alternative to fixing
it is the slippery slope: constantly escalating violations of taste and
propriety until community values are permanently eroded, and the community
itself is more coarse, more selfish, more brutal. Conservative talk-show
hosts would have us believe that this is the agenda of Paul Begala and
his ilk (whatever his "ilk" is). Nonsense. They mean well; they are just
wrong. But their lack of bad intentions doesn't make their embrace of
ethics laissez-faire any less destructive
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