Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Breast

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 critics.

    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 establishmentÂ…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 hereÂ…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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