Just As I Thought

The tyranny of the minority

Frank Rich in the New York Times takes a wry look at the sudden rash of “indeceny” that’s going to send our entire nation straight to hell:

Ever since 22 percent of the country’s voters said on Nov. 2 that they cared most about “moral values,” opportunistic ayatollahs on the right have been working overtime to inflate this nonmandate into a landslide by ginning up cultural controversies that might induce censorship by a compliant F.C.C. and, failing that, self-censorship by TV networks. Seizing on a single overhyped poll result, they exaggerate their clout, hoping to grab power over the culture.

The mainstream press, itself in love with the “moral values” story line and traumatized by the visual exaggerations of the red-blue map, is too cowed to challenge the likes of the American Family Association. So are politicians of both parties. It took a British publication, The Economist, to point out that the percentage of American voters citing moral and ethical values as their prime concern is actually down from 2000 (35 percent) and 1996 (40 percent).

To see how the hucksters of the right work their scam, there could be no more illustrative example than the “Monday Night Football” episode in which Ms. Sheridan leaped into the arms of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in order to give the declining weekly game (viewership is down 3 percent from 2003) a shot of Viagra. From the get-go, it was a manufactured scandal, as over-the-top as a dinner theater production of “The Crucible.”

Rush Limbaugh, taking a break from the legal deliberations of his drug rap and third divorce, set the hysterical tone. “I was stunned!” he told his listeners. “I literally could not believe what I had seen. … At various places on the Net you can see the video of this, and she’s buck naked, folks. I mean when they dropped the towel she’s naked. You see enough of her back and rear end to know that she was naked. There’s no frontal nudity in the thing, but I mean you don’t need that. …I mean, there are some guys with their kids that sit down to watch ‘Monday Night Football.’ “

Yes, there are – some, anyway – but you wonder how many of them were as upset as Mr. Limbaugh, whose imagination led him to mistake a lower back for a rear end. (He also said that the Sheridan-Owens encounter reminded him of the Kobe Bryant case; let’s not even go there.) The evidence suggests that Mr. Limbaugh’s prurient mind is the exception, not the rule. Though seen nationwide, and as early as 6 p.m. on the West Coast, the spot initially caused so little stir that the next morning only two newspapers in the country, both in Philadelphia, reported on it. ABC’s switchboards were not swamped by shocked viewers on Monday night. A spokesman for ABC Sports told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hadn’t received a single phone call or e-mail in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast.

… The hypocrisy embedded in this tale is becoming a national running gag. As in the Super Bowl brouhaha, in which the N.F.L. maintained it had no idea that MTV might produce a racy halftime show, the league has denied any prior inkling of the salaciousness on tap this time – even though the spot featured the actress playing the sluttiest character in prime time’s most libidinous series and was shot with the full permission of one of the league’s teams in its own locker room. Again as in the Jackson case, we are also asked to believe that pro football is what Pat Buchanan calls “the family entertainment, the family sports show” rather than what it actually is: a Boschian jamboree of bumping-and-grinding cheerleaders, erectile-dysfunction pageantry and, as Don Imus puts it, “wife-beating drug addicts slamming the hell out of each other” on the field.

But there’s another, more insidious game being played as well. The F.C.C. and the family values crusaders alike are cooking their numbers. The first empirical evidence was provided this month by Jeff Jarvis, a former TV Guide critic turned blogger. He had the ingenious idea of filing a Freedom of Information Act request to see the actual viewer complaints that drove the F.C.C. to threaten Fox and its affiliates with the largest indecency fine to date – $1.2 million for the sins of a now-defunct reality program called “Married by America.” Though the F.C.C. had cited 159 public complaints in its legal case against Fox, the documents obtained by Mr. Jarvis showed that there were actually only 90 complaints, written by 23 individuals. Of those 23, all but 2 were identical repetitions of a form letter posted by the Parents Television Council. In other words, the total of actual, discrete complaints about “Married by America” was 3.

We are now living in a nation where a few ideologues can enforce their views upon millions. Is this America? Is this the way this country is supposed to work? Why are so many people willing to allow a tiny, tiny group of nutcases tell them how to live their lives?

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