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Broadcast indecency

It was just a breast.

The overwrought reaction of the Federal Communications Commission to a flash of female flesh during the Super Bowl halftime show says more about the priorities of the FCC than it does about the demise of American culture.

The regulators making a federal case out of Janet Jackson's right breast are the same champions of the public interest who have no problem with the fact that most of what we hear, watch, and read in the United States is controlled by six giant media conglomerates.

Next week, lawyers for the FCC will ask the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to permit implementation of new regulations designed to promote even more consolidation of media ownership. An FCC win next Wednesday is a far greater threat to democracy than the glimpse of a fading pop star's mammary gland that we saw last Sunday.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell's accurate description of the publicity stunt by Jackson and Justin Timberlake as "classless, crass, and deplorable" is a pretty fair characterization of a hefty chunk of the nightly entertainment programming on network television. Jackson's breast-baring was just a more explicit example of the T-and-A sexploitation around which most so-called reality programming is built. See the bachelor and the bachelorette feigning sex in the hot tub. See the nearly naked exhibitionists prancing down the beach on the latest episode of "Survivor."

It is easier to blame the collapse of civilization on the Jackson family than it is to look at the economics that make cheap, tasteless programming so popular with broadcast executives whose eyes are firmly focused on the bottom line. The Jacksons aren't the only ones who like to keep it all in the family. Media moguls worship at the altar of corporate synergy.

The now infamous halftime show was produced by MTV and broadcast by CBS, both companies owned by Viacom, one of the "Big Six" media conglomerates that decide which movies get made, which music gets recorded, and which books get published in this country. Viacom, Walt Disney, AOL-Time Warner, General Electric, News Corp., and Vivendi Universal answer to their stockholders, not to the American people who own the public airwaves and rely on the FCC to hold licensees to the highest standards of democracy, as well as decency.

Instead of being alarmed by the consolidation of media outlets, the FCC is determined to encourage more of it. Last June, the FCC voted to lift the cap on the number of television stations any single media outlet can own and to rescind the prohibition on a newspaper owning a television station in the same city in which it publishes.

Consumer groups immediately challenged the FCC rules changes as an endorsement of media monopolies. The consequence, lawyers for such groups as Common Cause argued, would be a homogenization of public discourse. There would be fewer community-owned stations, fewer venues for minority opinions to be heard, less local commitment by out-of-town media owners.

The peoples' representatives have protested these changes, as well. Last September, in a bipartisan effort to nullify the FCC rules changes, the Senate passed a resolution of disapproval on a 55-40 vote. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert continues to ignore a letter signed by 208 members of Congress requesting that the full House be given an opportunity to vote on the same resolution. The Bush administration supports the rules changes.

Powell and his fellow commissioners, most of whom issued condemnatory statements this week about the international exposure given to Janet Jackson's breast, ought to spend less time wringing their hands about the demise of family values and more time worrying about their own assault on democratic values.

To apply Powell's own statement about the Super Bowl bodice-ripping incident to the FCC's new media ownership rules: "Our nation's children, parents, and citizens deserve better."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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