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The Passion of Howard Stern

Posted: February 27, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Arbiter of Indecency

Forget Mel Gibson and the furor over the portrayal of Jews in The Passion of the Christ. If you truly want to witness an account of unspeakable suffering inflicted on innocent, undeserving souls by gleeful, salivating, malicious devils, wait for the inevitable TV-movie docudrama or Oliver Stone film about the Breast Bared 'Round the World. To hear FCC chief Michael Powell tell it, the second-long flash of Janet Jackson's mammary during this year's Super Bowl halftime snooze-fest inflicted unendurable agony on legions of virgin-pure viewers, all of them happily huddled 'round their TV sets expecting a "celebration."

Never mind that the collection of "talents" assembled -- Nelly, Kid Rock, P. freaking Diddy, for crying out loud -- has historically proven incapable of celebrating anything but their own (largely undeserved) celebrity. Never mind that none of the performers -- including Justin "Pretty Fly For A White Guy" Timberlake -- are known for their cuddly, Mr. Rogers images. None of this tipped off Mr. Powell or a large portion of the news media to just what kind of mediocre crap they could expect from the halftime show. Powell sputtered so ferociously at this "outrage" that you'd think Gandhi or Mother Teresa had jumped onstage spitting venomous racial slurs.

The bonfire of the hypocrisies that resulted has proven only that Janet and Justin don't own the copyright on shamelessness. CBS, showing less backbone than the French people exhibited during World War II, declared itself "shocked, shocked" by the display. This is the same CBS that had earlier folded like a rickety card table under pressure from right-wing groups and pulled its "controversial" biopic on Ronald Reagan, a figure whose holiness is apparently second only to Jesus himself. Powell, whose FCC had recently declined to condemn Bono for letting slip the F-word during a Golden Globes ceremony, climbed awkwardly onto his moral high horse and announced an immediate investigation. Since any developmentally impaired infant could see that the whole thing was obviously staged, maybe Powell is donning his paper Torquemada robes to investigate just what that thing was on Janet's chest. It's called a boob, Mikey. Never seen one before? Take a look in the mirror.

No, the real victim here is us. Not because network over-reaction denies us any further glimpses of hooters (there wasn't much to see, even for those who froze the image of that bizarre nipple adornment on their TiVos). We should be afraid -- we should be very afraid -- because the media corporations are jerking away with whiplash speed from anything related to the controversy. From anything, in fact, even remotely controversial, without regard to ideology. So far, we've shied away from things that might possibly rile religious conservatives (bare breasts on ER), the politically correct (sci-fi Indian dances) or, um, people who don't like JC Chasez (most everyone, I'm guessing).

And now Clear Channel, the communications behemoth, is trying to make a straw man out of Howard Stern. As of this writing, Stern's show has been indefinitely "suspended" from the six Clear Channel radio stations on which it had been airing. (In the bulk of Stern's markets, the show is carried by a rival network, Infinity Broadcasting.) Clear Channel President and CEO John Hogan conceded that there was nothing out of the ordinary about the Stern program that prompted his decision, one in which a caller used the "n" word before Stern hung up on him. "I don't think he's changed his tune; we have changed ours," Hogan said. "We're going in a different direction."

This is a canny move by Clear Channel and the burgeoning forces of cowardice. Stern, after all, has long been the poster boy for verbal excess, and a whipping boy for the FCC to boot. Clear Channel knows that "taking a stand" against this once-provocative personality will play well with Mr. And Mrs. Middle America. It's an easy posture, full of sound and fury, signifying a need for the company to position itself on the right side of the new culture debate -- the one that allows the forces of religious piety, political conservatism and moral righteousness to tell the rest of us what's acceptable and what's not.

But Stern's moment has long passed. Outside of his core listening base, he doesn't attract much attention these days; we're a long way from the brief moment in the mid 1990s when Private Parts made him King of the World. No one who's likely to be offended by Stern is in any danger of stumbling across his program unwarned. He's not a threat: He's a non-issue. And that's what's telling -- and troubling -- about this posturing.

The fact that Clear Channel is willing to puff Stern up into a bogeyman of inappropriate broadcasting only shows that the forces of apple pie and morality are desperate to create villains in this drama, the better to serve their own ends. What 9/11 was to the war-mongering Bush Administration, Boobygate is poised to do for Pat Robertson, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Powell and the Arbiters of Decency in their never-ending war on a plethora of ills. Using Jackson's breast as a Trojan horse, they can manipulate the current climate of overly cautious overreaction, cowering already courage-deficient broadcast networks into removing anything they might find offensive: Gay marriage, rap music, swear words in the movies, liberals in the White House -- you name it. "First we clamp down on the Grammys, then Howard Stern, then all of prime-time TV, and then, the sky's the limit!" If Stern ends up looking like a certain other martyr who's in the news at the moment, well, that's apparently a small price to pay for the cause.

Stern's rather blatantly contrived (and ineffectual) crucifixion on the altar of Family Values would make an eye-opening movie in itself. But don't look for Mel Gibson, whose sadistically gory revenge-flick of a Passion Play seeks to whip the pious into a benevolent, adrenalized froth, to helm such a picture. This is a man, remember, whose Christ-like pacifism led him to say of one of his critics, New York Times columnist Frank Rich: "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog." That turn-the-other-cheek tolerance, however, does make him the perfect director for the aforementioned propaganda film about the death of decency at the hands of a washed-up pop star and her malfunctioning wardrobe. Call it The Passion of The Self-Righteous.

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April 08, 2004: The Day the Music Died (Kurt Cobain)
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Feb. 27, 2004: The Passion of Howard Stern
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