Friday, November 26, 2004

Where’s the Outrage?

Frank Rich is his usual brilliant self with his take on the most recent example of moral indignity.

It’s beginning to look a lot like “Groundhog Day.” 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.”

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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.

In other words, this whole hue-and-cry over televised indecency, which stoked the fear of the backlash that lead to the 66 stations pre-empting “Saving Private Ryan,” is all in the minds of the weak-willed TV stations or in the fevered dreams of the Religious Reich who see these “indecencies” as an opportunity to rake in tons of cash through mass-mailings. There is no outrage; it’s all a hoax. And that’s an outrage.