Casual Analysis Argument About the Media Essay

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Media Analysis Argument

Television is frequently implicated in a cause and effect relationship with moral decline, but I believe a closer examination demonstrates this causality to be spurious. It was ten years ago, more or less, that the Super Bowl halftime show featured a rather surprising incident: Justin Timberlake performed a duet with Janet Jackson, which concluded with what was infamously described as a "wardrobe malfunction." The image of this event -- which was determined to have lasted for only nine-sixteenths of a second -- is unforgettable for the mass audience of those who saw it, and remains readily available online. But can we say ten years later that it actually caused or contributed to a widespread moral decline between 2004 and 2014? I would like to focus my discussion on Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" because I think it, on closer examination, it will turn out to show that the moral panic occasioned by it had very little substance. It is my contention that television may be insidious in certain ways, but a direct causal correlation between television and deficiencies in morality or intelligence is unlikely.

OUTLINE

Intro: relation between television and morality

Examine Janet Jackson Super Bowl Incident

Paragraph One: Morality and the law

Examine legal ramifications of incident

Legality of it shifted in response to public outrage

Supreme Court response

Paragraph Two: Morality and political response

Michael Powell

Sen. Zell Miller

Paragraph Three: If not Immoral why the panic?

Reach of television to large audience

Fear of possible influence

Conclusion: Cloistered Virtue

Christian morality and the incident

Ubiquity of sin

Real morality exercised in exposure to temptation

Worst predictions of moral decline not proven true in 10 years since event

Television is frequently implicated in a cause and effect relationship with moral decline, but I believe a closer examination demonstrates this causality to be spurious. It was ten years ago, more or less, that the Super Bowl halftime show featured a rather surprising incident: Justin Timberlake performed a duet with Janet Jackson, which concluded with what was infamously described as a "wardrobe malfunction." The image of this event -- which was determined to have lasted for only nine-sixteenths of a second -- is unforgettable for the mass audience of those who saw it, and remains readily available online. But can we say ten years later that it actually caused or contributed to a widespread moral decline between 2004 and 2014? I would like to focus my discussion on Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" because I think it, on closer examination, it will turn out to show that the moral panic occasioned by it had very little substance. It is my contention that television may be insidious in certain ways, but a direct causal correlation between television and deficiencies in morality or intelligence is unlikely.

When we recall the 2004 "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl, we must acknowledge one thing first: whatever the morality involved in the act might have been, its legality was for a long time a matter of dispute. The immediate outcry over the incident led to an investigation by the government agency, the FCC, that is responsible for regulating television content for decency: the media company that broadcast the Super Bowl, Viacom, was ultimately fined $550,000 dollars for the transgression. However, subsequent appeals within the legal system ended up reversing this judgment and cancelling the fine, and the story finally ended permanently on June 29, 2012 when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the FCC to reinstate the fine, with Chief Justice John Roberts noting that the law had been clarified and codified and (in his words) "any future 'wardrobe malfunctions' will not be protected on the ground relied on by the court below" (Cherner, 2012). The reason for the voiding of the fine was noted by USA Today at the time of the Supreme Court's statement in 2012: the success for the appeals depended on the fact that the FCC had, in fact, changed their policy a month after the Super Bowl in order to reflect the public outcry and be able to punish Viacom for the incident. In other words, the voice of a mob had succeeded in changing the law after what they saw as a crime, and then retroactively punishing that crime under the new law. Whatever the morality involved in briefly seeing a human nipple on television, it is arguable that the morality of bending the law to serve the whim of the mob is far more suspect.

This raises the question, however, of what is the precise morality of seeing a nipple on television. Those who watched the broadcast ten years ago -- as I did -- were more likely to find the incident bewildering rather than aphrodisiacal. The very euphemism that became ubiquitous after the incident -- "wardrobe malfunction" -- arguably stuck in the public memory because that was indeed what it looked like. It did not look like a woman was erotically revealing her breast -- it looked like Justin Timberlake had accidentally pulled off part of Janet Jackson's costume. The fact that Janet Jackson's nipple was itself partly concealed by some sort of piece of jewelry (called a "nipple shield") added to the sense of strangeness. There was nothing sexy about the incident. Instead, it became a focus for people who were already concerned about moral decline, and were looking for evidence of it. The fact that nudity is not permissible on American television -- despite the fact that female breasts appear on television in Europe frequently, without occasioning immediate social collapse -- became a rallying point to describe the incident as a moral outrage. But was it? As noted, Jackson did not even reveal a full breast. It is also worth noting the remarks made by the Chairman of the FCC, Michael Powell, at the time when the incident was being investigated. Powell described it in the following terms:

Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. (Cogan 2014).

As Powell's role was to adjudicate upon the legality of the incident, he was perhaps barred from using moralistic terms rather than judgmental ones. The irony is that very frequently the allegorical statues of Justice in American courthouses are represented with a blindfolded woman holding scales, who is frequently depicted with bared breasts: these statues have not caused moral collapse, and it would be hard to argue that somehow Janet Jackson had accomplished what 2500 years of depiction of the nude human figure in art had failed to do. However this did not stop other political figures from making exaggerated and overblown claims for the danger posed by a partially-clothed nipple seen for nine-sixteenths of a second on television: Senator Zell Miller described it as "a show brought to us courtesy of…the pagan temple of Viacom-Babylon" (Miller 2004).

If the incident was not ultimately intended to be sexual, and was only even visible on television (as ESPN notes) for nine-sixteenths of a second, then it is worth asking why this miniscule incident was inflated into a symptom of moral decline. The fact is that television has a tremendous reach in American society, but it is unclear if it has an influence or a power equivalent to that reach. An estimated audience of 90 million people saw the "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl. It also lasted less than a second. What is the real world effect of such a thing? The answer is, simply, nothing. In a 2014 interview, former FCC chair Michael Powell admitted in an interview that "I thought the whole thing was really unfair" and confessed that he himself had to fake his outrage in reading the public statement quoted above (Cogan 2014). So we are also left to wonder where the outrage came from. The lyrics of the song being performed by Jackson and Timberlake were arguably sexual, and the general tone of the angry mob was that children were permitted to watch this. But the same song was readily available on the radio at the time, and no-one thought it necessary to protect children from it there. Moreover, is it really that damaging to children to see a human breast? One wonders how the people who believe this think that babies and small children were fed before the invention of plastic bottles. If anything it seems likely that football itself -- with its level of violence and the increasing evidence of its very traumatic effects on the health of its players -- is probably a more damaging and offensive thing to convince children to watch. Football players have frequently been killed or crippled by the game that they are playing, but nobody to my knowledge has ever been killed by a brief and partial glimpse of a portion of a woman's breast.

But let us consider, then, overall the effect of television on morality. It is worth noting a…[continue]

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