Pay attention to why voters say they re-elected President Bush. Despite the loss of jobs at homes and lives abroad, it was moral values, not Iraq, not the economy, not health care, that was the top issue in the presidential campaign, according to the exit polls.
If that rejection of the right and left coasts is broad-based, as many were suggesting last week, the decency watchdogs should be emboldened, and with good reason. It could be a trying four years, and maybe more, for the First Amendment.
Broadcast content, already micromanaged by the FCC at the behest of the Parents Television Council, could be further chilled, and even more of the best programming could flee to cable. But the wired medium isn't safe, either. The Sopranos might have to be renamed The Castrati if the Supreme Court, perhaps led by Justice Antonin Scalia, decides that cable is too pervasive to escape government censorship.
It is no longer possible to brand the Janet Jackson Super Bowl flap and fine or the Bono f-word complaint an aberration. Instead, it appears to reflect the same frustrated moral indignation that got millions to the polls. We don't like that direction, and we will fight for the electronic media's freedom to be irresponsible and crude and spontaneous because that also means it is free to be groundbreaking and innovative and important. We should not, however, cavalierly dismiss the reasons people think the way they do.
Resolving issues of taste and so-called decency should result from a conversation between the media and its audience, not a lecture, or laws, from Washington. Clearly, the voters were saying something, but exactly what and just how the media should respond is unclear. Frequently, the shows that get the most heat from watchdog groups—Will & Grace, for instance—are the most popular. This is, remember, the same moral majority that went 11-for-11 in banning gay marriages and even some civil unions in this election.
There is clearly a disconnect between popular culture and a large part of the popular vote. That divide may ultimately be as unbridgeable as the red and blue states, but that doesn't mean broadcasters as editors, parents and responsible citizens can or should simply ignore it. They need to decide how this rebuke fits into that conversation, then come up with a response that makes sense. If America is worried about moral values, the television and radio business should be, too. Not for fear of a law, but because their audience expects them to be better stewards.
We have warned programmers before that they cannot bury their heads in the sand and cover their tails with the First Amendment. It is simply a matter of judgment and taste.
America's ambiguous moral indignation may be a sign that socialite/porn star/Simple Life star Paris Hilton is falling out of favor. That might not be altogether a bad thing.
Still, the moral-values vote should not translate into homogenized or timid programming. Broadcasters have already conceded too much First Amendment territory for the sake of the bottom line.