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Wed, June 19

Do we really need a 'Federal Breast Police'?

We can all remember, with shock, the first time we caught sight of a bare breast on network television. It happened just eight months ago, during the Super Bowl halftime show, when singer Justin Timberlake yanked down Janet Jackson's top and exposed, for a fleeting instant, an item of flesh never before seen by a broadcast audience.

What's that, you say? That wasn't the first time? Hmm. I take it viewers got a glimpse of an unmistakably female chest back in 2002, on CBS's "C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation." Which would make Jackson's the second one.

No? There was, it seems, a previous incident when actress Drew Barrymore flashed David Letterman. And what's this? Meredith Baxter displayed her charms in a 1994 network TV movie.

Well, these things didn't happen in the wholesome days before Bill Clinton. Huh? They did? Students of "Charlie's Angels" report a confirmed sighting of one of Farrah Fawcett's prize assets back in … can this be right? 1976? And Valerie Perrine gave an eyeful to viewers of PBS – PBS! – in 1973.

In spite of all these episodes, it appears that millions of Americans suffered no permanent trauma from making eye contact with a nipple. But the Federal Communications Commission is taking no chances. Last week, assuming the new role of Federal Breast Police, it announced a fine of $550,000 against CBS for the incident. It fulminated that "the nudity here was designed to pander to, titillate and shock the viewing audience," and said the network had "betrayed its trust" to the FCC and the parents of America.

That last claim is certainly true: When they tune in NFL telecasts with their offspring, parents don't normally anticipate gratuitous displays of female flesh – aside from cheerleaders who could have gotten their outfits from Victoria's Secret. But the fact that CBS surprised millions of viewers last Feb. 1 doesn't mean that federal intervention is required.

We don't expect the federal government, after all, to prevent offensive nudity in Time magazine, or your local newspaper, or even Highlights for Children. We rely on the informal contract between these publications and their readers to assure that people get more or less what they want, with no rude shocks mixed in. And when a publication breaches that trust, we assume that the pain of alienating their customers is punishment enough. CBS and the other networks learned a stinging lesson from this episode – to keep the Super Bowl PG.

The FCC, however, assumes that only censors based in Washington can offer parents protection against the baser impulses of the entertainment industry. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, in announcing this decision, said the First Amendment is "not a license to thrill. 'Anything goes' is not an acceptable mantra for those that elect to earn their profit using the public's airwaves."

It may be that most parents don't put a high priority on making sure their kids never see a breast. Or it may be that they rely on more traditional safeguards, like the "off" button on the remote control. But regardless of how they're performing their parental role, they don't need the federal government to take it over.

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