Only a Matter of Time


Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

Somehow it isn’t surprising how on the morning after the Super Bowl, there was outrage in the air — and it wasn’t just coming from Carolina fans. The MTV-produced halftime show, not to mention the commercials, left even some of the worldliest football fans sputtering. Our own Chuck Colson talked with a non-Christian friend who is usually blasé about what goes on in our culture, but who was furious over the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the halftime concert — if you can call it that — and about finding out way too much about Mike Ditka’s personal problems. “There are kids watching,” she said. And, indeed, she was right.

At CBS, the network that aired the game, angry viewers lit up the switchboard. The NFL is blaming MTV; MTV and CBS are both saying that they had no idea this would happen. Pop star Justin Timberlake, who did the unveiling, claims it was merely a “wardrobe malfunction.” I can tell you that during all the years I spent as a defense attorney and prosecutor, those were the kind of arguments we heard all the time. However, since the promise of “shocking moments” in the halftime show was made beforehand, their denials don’t hold much credibility — particularly because just before Timberlake removed part of Jackson’s top, he sang that she was going to be “naked by the end of this song.”

Tom Shales, TV critic for the Washington Post, was another shocked and horrified viewer. In a blistering column, Shales wrote, “Maybe the Super Bowl will have to move from the broadcast networks to the Playboy Channel if its commercials are going to be so dirty that they embarrass parents watching with their kids.”

To all this, the Christian is tempted to respond, “So where have you been all these years?” Far more graphic incidents occur every day of the week on HBO, Showtime, MTV, and even on some network programs. (Several of these, by the way, are big favorites of Tom Shales and other TV critics who are really upset about the Super Bowl.)

You have to wonder why it is that those who worry that our mere existence offends radical Islamic cultures aren’t doing more to fight this kind of cultural rot? No wonder radical Islamic leaders are able to convince their followers that the West is decadent.

I suspect that some critics would protest, “But this was during the family hour. We never approved of this kind of thing for family viewing.” But once you’ve opened the door to explicit depictions of sexuality and violence, even on pay cable, they quickly become the norm. These are the shows the mainstream media and the more “sophisticated” viewers talk about, which means that they’re the shows every other channel wants to duplicate. They trickle from cable to broadcast network, from adults to teens to children. As adults become desensitized, many lose their ability to discern what’s appropriate for their children. And meanwhile, as overexposure limits the culture’s ability to shock, it has to push the envelope farther and farther to have any impact at all.

I’m glad people are upset about what happened Sunday night. But let’s not pretend we don’t know why it happened. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. And unless we’re willing to work to change the culture, it won’t take long before it happens again.

For further reading and information:

To complain to CBS, click “Feedback” at the bottom of its homepage; write to: CBS Television Network, 51 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019; or call 212-975-4321.

Find out how to contact the FCC.

House panel blasts FCC over indecency standards,” Associated Press, 29 January 2004.

Tom Shales, “Incomplete!” Washington Post, 2 February 2004. Compare with “Giving Them ‘L,’” Shales’s review of Showtime’s new drama The L Word, in the Washington Post, 18 January 2004.

According to MTV’s website, in this article that it has taken down but has been preserved via Google, “shocking moments” in the show were planned.

Read NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s statement on the incident.

Jonathan D. Salant, “FCC launches investigation into halftime show,” Star-Telegram (Dallas-Fort Worth), 2 February 2004.

Jeremy Pelofsky, “Jackson’s Bare Breast Sparks FCC Probe,” Reuters, 2 February 2004.

Gary Mihoces, “NFL upset by halftime show; CBS apologizes,” USA Today, 2 February 2004.

Feds ‘Outraged by Halftime Show Mishap,” Associated Press, 2 February 2004.

Joanna Weiss, “Crass, not class, at halftime,” Boston Globe, 2 February 2004.

James Lileks, “You can’t say those things on television,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 1 February 2004. (Free registration required.)

Michelle Malkin, “MTV: No Thanks for the Memories,”, 1 August 2001.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030724, “Inviting Trouble: Iraq, Terrorism, and the Media.”

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