Jay Evensen: Why the Janet Jackson case remains important

Published: Thursday, April 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Eight years have passed since that infamous Super Bowl in which Janet Jackson made the term "wardrobe malfunction" a part of the culture.

I wrote at the time that she got what she wanted, which was publicity to help sell her new album. I'm not so sure she has what she wanted any more.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, no matter what she may do during the rest of her time on earth, Jackson probably can't change the fact that her obituary one day likely will focus on what she did for nine-sixteenths of a second during a halftime show.

The Obama administration last week decided to appeal a decision that nullified the Federal Communications Commission's $550,000 fine against the CBS television network for airing that malfunction, which briefly exposed a private part of the singer's anatomy to a live audience.

A federal appeals court ruled last November that the FCC acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in imposing the fine.

From the beginning, this case has laid bare the frailty of public-decency standards in an age when adolescent humor seems to have overwhelmed all the playground monitors. The administration is fighting for the right to keep inappropriate images away from the small sliver of programming that makes up the public airwaves. Meanwhile, anyone, regardless of age, can go to YouTube, type in a few search terms and watch the offending halftime show on-demand.

Clearly, those who view junior-high behavior as creative freedom already have free reign over much of what passes for entertainment. People with standards are on their own against the storm.

We've come a long way in 52 years. Few people today remember the media circus that erupted on Feb. 11, 1960 when NBC decided to delete a joke that Tonight Show host Jack Paar told.

Paar's joke had to do with a British woman who wanted to rent a room in Switzerland. Being proper, she enquired about the availability of a "WC," which she took for granted to mean a water closet, or a bathroom, as we would say. The Swiss schoolmaster who was helping her didn't speak English very well, so he asked the local parish priest for help in understanding the woman. The priest assumed "WC" referred to "Wayside Chapel."

In a letter to the woman, the schoolmaster wrote that he took "great pleasure in informing you that the WC is situated nine miles from the house." As the letter continued, the misunderstanding became more absurd and amusing. For example, "It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only."

When Paar learned the joke had been cut, he walked off the show and didn't return for three publicity filled weeks.

While NBC apologized to its temperamental star, the man who refused to air the joke, Ernest Lee Jahncke Jr., head of the network's standards and practices department, remained unmoved. It was a question of good taste, he said. In particular, he was bothered by a double entendre that involved religion.

Religion is, of course, the arbiter for most of what society determines to be proper, and improper, behavior. Those standards are meant to protect people from both physical and spiritual harm. It should come as no surprise that the more spiritually illiterate society becomes, the less likely it is to articulate reasons not to tolerate vulgarities.

Jackson's malfunction may have been a defining moment in her career, but it was only a blip in the relentless onslaught against decency. It pushed what remains of public limits, but only slightly. Before it happened, she and Justin Timberlake were moving on a stage filled with scantily clad, gyrating dancers. The lyrics included a promise to "have you naked by the end of this song."

None of this is part of the case being appealed to the Supreme Court. None of it was considered inappropriate for the halftime of a family friendly football game.

The bar has moved far since 1960. If the FCC prevails, it would at least remain one voice of authority reminding people that decency is important.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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