Media Matters

The Last Time We Saw Paris

Or was it Janet Jackson on SNL, again displaying license without a license?

By 4.12.04

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Make no mistake. Pornography is now as acceptable as cigarette smoking in a 1936 film. That one of the Hilton sisters could achieve worldwide acclaim because footage of a one-time boyfriend and herself in delicto made it onto the Internet is a benchmark of the taste of our time. And though FCC Chairman Powell seems determined to clean up Howard Stern's act for him by fining the stations that air him, there are signs Powell is alone in the Augean stable and working with a teaspoon.

Take Saturday Night Live -- please. A lot of folks wondered if Janet Jackson's appearance as guest mammal would produce anything reminiscent of her Super Bowl performance. It was said the show would be produced without a delay and therefore without the censor's thumb on anything. Janet produced some highly athletic dance routines, displaying a nicely healed navel, demonstrating a sacroiliac of wondrous suppleness, but did not venture beyond the copulating simulations that pass for modern dance. She was a passive partner later in a sketch that in any other time would have closed the network and put everybody in the RCA building onto the avenue.

The scenario involved a wine-making group speaking with Italian accents and concerned with "cork soaking." The merits of "cork soaking" were examined at length, with a suggestion that perhaps Janet would like to learn to "soak corks." At one point an elderly woman was introduced briefly who proclaimed that her absence of teeth made her a better "cork soaker" than in the past. And two of the protagonist men engaged in some other ill-concealing chatter about a number larger than 68 but smaller than 70. Janet's role was mainly to stand and stammer when asked a question. The single entendre lasted several minutes. Much longer than Sarnoff would have had he been around to see it.

So, what are we, some kinda prudes? You don't like it, don't watch. Our First Amendment rights are under attack already in the name of terrorist control. You want a fascist dictatorship here? Howard Stern is a hero to millions of testosterone-soaked males. Lay off.

One little thing. Freedom, as enshrined in that First Amendment, does not stand unexercised. It lives when it is used. The question is not "Can I do this?" It is, rather, "Should I do this?" And that question is answered by a cursory examination of the cultural limits and the license that lies beyond. We knew what "cork soaking" was intended to mean at the first mention. The repeats were like the little boy who keeps chattering a newly discovered dirty word at dinner time. There is soap in the bathroom. For grownups producing television fare there is judgment. Self-administered, or supplied (as it is in these times) by a federal entity representing public taste.

It isn't entirely academic. We are now engaged in a dicey venture intended to see if a diverse people with no experience with freedom can be made capable of exercising it.

We have put more than 650 American lives into this investment which cannot be retrieved. At the end of June we are to ask those people to ask themselves the question we are increasingly failing to answer: not "can I?" but "should I?"

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.