Sat, Jul 31, 2004 - Page 9 News List

US Christian Right is chilling free speech

Ever since Janet Jackson bared a breast on network TV, US popular culture has been under siege from the sweeping forces of the Christian Right. Is liberal tolerance facing a new dark age in the Land of the Free?

By Lawrence Donegan  /  THE OBSERVER , London


American TV is obsessed with extreme makeover shows so it came as no surprise this week when Les Moonves, the head of CBS television and one of the industry's most powerful executives, attempted an extreme makeover on himself. "We will vigorously defend our right to produce such content as some may deem too controversial," Moonves told an audience of television critics in Los Angeles.

"We believe the viewing and listening public will not tolerate government censorship and we're going to take a very strong stand on that," he said.

In their rush to praise the CBS boss, most of the critics forgot that Moonves's words were utterly at odds with his actions late last year. Under pressure from right-wing media pundits and Republican politicians, he pulled a controversial drama about former US president Ronald Reagan and banished it to cable TV, where few people saw it. "I don't think it was balanced," he said at the time.

"Ludicrous," retorted the film's director, Robert Ackerman.

"An attack on free speech," chimed Judy Davis, the actress who played Nancy Reagan and who characterized Moonves's attitude thus: "We don't like what we suspect you might be saying so we will do everything in our power to remove it from a major network so people can't hear what you're saying."

The judges for the Emmys, US TV's most prestigious awards, clearly found little fault with The Reagans, nominating it for seven awards last week.

CBS found itself in the middle of an even greater controversy a couple of months later, when it broadcast the infamous Janet Jackson "breast-baring" incident during the Super Bowl half-time show -- the first wardrobe malfunction in history to spark a congressional debate. The network responded by claiming ignorance of Jackson's intentions. She was later dropped from an appearance at the Grammy Awards after she refused to apologize on air.

But while Moonves has attempted to align himself with both sides of the censorship debate, there are few others within the US media and political classes who share his ambivalence. If it is true to say in the run-up to this year's presidential election that the US has never been more politically divided, then it is equally true that the battle for control of the country's cultural landscape has never been more bitterly fought. Some commentators, such as Robert Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, say that the latter is a direct result of the former. "It is very difficult and complicated to conduct arguments in public over the different political approaches to shaping the lives of Americans," he says.

"It's far easier to get worked up about sex and swearing on TV. It's a much easier battleground in that the public, because it watches so much TV, can relate to what is being argued over," he says.

On one side of the debate are those railing against what they imagine to be the debasement of traditional American values -- Christian leaders like Charles Colson, who has argued that the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were the result of the US guards being fed "a steady diet of MTV and pornography" -- and self- appointed moral guardians like the Parent Television Council (slogan: "Because our children are watching"), whose Web site rates programs on their adherence to so-called family values and which provides a helpful link to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Web site encouraging people to file complaints about TV shows. An estimated 500,000 people did so after the Super Bowl -- an event described by council founder Brent Bozell as the "ground zero of the commercially calculated outrageousness."

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