Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Daniel Adams

He can start by being thankful that he chairs arguably one of the most powerful and influential government agencies in Washington — the FCC. Not so long ago, this meant little in the way of name recognition. Can anyone honestly remember the name of the FCC chair before Powell? How about the one before him?

But we know Powell’s name, and for that he can thank Janet Jackson and her right boob.

Exposed before 140 million Americans at last year’s Super Bowl, that breast has changed the way Americans look at the FCC and its chair. Soon after the incident, Powell rushed in, calling it “outrageous” and announcing that he would be launching an investigation. Jackson, sensing the impending media assault, was quick to apologize. A spokesman offered his version of what happened, calling it a “wardrobe malfunction.”

Though seemingly well-intentioned and sincere, her explanation and apology would prove unable to withstand the firestorm of brutal condemnation that was to follow. Powell and the FCC led the charge. Before his own investigation had concluded — indeed, before it had even begun — Powell offered his own version of the incident: “Clearly somebody had knowledge of it. Clearly it was something that was planned by someone. She probably got what she was looking for.”

Powell became the face of an offended America — the voice of parents across the nation convinced that they and their impressionable brood had been victimized by the searing image of Jackson’s nipple. Whereas his predecessors were often content to quietly and passively enforce their congressional mandate, Powell has rarely shied away from commenting on issues that he sees as a violation of FCC standards. These standards, however, are hardly clear on what is and what is not indecent, dubbing indecency “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

Powell seems neither confused nor daunted by this ambiguous mandate. Take for example the most recent FCC flap over the Terrell Owens/Nicollete Sheridan skit on Monday Night Football last week. In the piece, we have Owens, a professional football player, being seduced by Sheridan, who plays a slutty housewife on the appropriately titled ABC series “Desperate Housewives.” At the end of the skit, Sheridan seems to succeed, dropping the towel and jumping into Owens’s arms.

Powell was quick to denounce the sketch and express his disappointment. “I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud,” he quipped, referring to the Disney corporation’s ownership of ABC, the network that had broadcast the piece.

Nevermind that Walt Disney was a notorious anti-Socialist, a willing informant to Joe McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, and a reputed racist and anti-Semite — if this is indecent, then over the past week, Powell has been asleep at the wheel!

Monday through Friday at 3 p.m., just as little Johnny is getting off the school bus., ABC ran “General Hospital” — a soap opera often featuring long sexualized montages with lots of skin, panting and sultry music.

This weekend, kids watching Saturday morning network television were treated to endless replays of the Friday night brawl at the Pistons-Pacers game, in which Pacers players Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal jumped into the stands of a crowded stadium and began assaulting fans. Then they jumped back on the court and, shockingly, continued to assault fans.

And at noon this Sunday, FX showed “Booty Call,” SciFi “Escape from New York” and A&E “Deliverance” — a lovely think piece in which Ned Beatty’s character is raped by a hillbilly.

I’m not defending Jackson, nor am I an advocate of abandoning decency standards for broadcast media. But this isn’t a standard; standards aren’t supposed to be this arbitrary and confusing. No, this is one man, with a microphone, editorializing on issues that he personally finds offensive. One man, using the power of his position to influence what is and what is not allowed on television.

When asked to explain his criteria for judging what is indecent, Powell replied, “I don’t think you need to be a lawyer to understand the basic concepts of common decency here.” Actually, to understand, you just need to be Michael Powell.

 

Adams can be reached at dnadams@umich.edu.

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