It's 9:00 p.m. in America and Al Bundy, television's beleaguered "everyman" is channel-surfing. Desiring to improve his mind, Mr. Bundy typically settles on an educational program -- this one about East Africa.
"Thong Bikinis of the Serengeti." Welcome to sweeps month. And I exaggerate only slightly.
Recently, CBS's medical drama "Chicago Hope" pushed the outside of the envelope one tiny bit farther by claiming title to being the first non-cable program to utter the "s-word" in prime time. The producers trumpeted this artistic breakthrough from the mountaintops, citing the usual: artistic relevance, realism, etc.
This is a significant moment. But it is not significant simply because the word was spoken, because someone said fecal effluvia on television. That word has been downgraded to a minor expletive by the prevailing standards of today, and has been that way for some time, approaching -- though not quite achieving -- the banality of, say, "heck" and "goshdarn." In any event, your children hear it at school all day long.
CBS unloosing it's highly-publicized, ratings-desperation-induced, pathetic little expletive would make Al Bundy stifle a yawn. He's already seen bare bottoms on "NYPD Blue" and experienced the self-bleeping of the famous "f-word" dozens of times in the new Fox show, "Action." That's the one where the character says the word and then they edit out the sound before they air the show. It's done that way so you know what he's saying but you just can't hear it ... but you still know it.
The Chicago Hope episode is significant partly because we in the media have helped call everyone's attention to it, with hardly any mainstream media voices of disapproval. This general tacit approval guarantees that the ever-tightening ratchet will pull a bit farther down, the line dividing what can be and what cannot be. Since nothing happens in a vacuum, everything else that exists at that same approximate latitude of toxicity as the "s-word," is suddenly moved up with it from the "cannot be" zone to the "can be" zone. Whatever those things may be.
It's like a rising tide lifts all the boats ... well, an outgoing tide also lowers all the boats.
Amazingly, debate still rages as to whether the popular media even has any inordinate influence on the culture at all. Many still say the culture is the first cause, and that media is simply a reflector. Please don't tell that to the advertising industry. Budweiser spends 1.2 million dollars on a 30-second spot during the Superbowl, because they know darn well that if the nation spends 30 seconds watching the antics of their talking frogs and ferrets -- Budweiser will absolutely sell more beer. One would think that would end the debate forever. Ah, but we of the media are a gifted people.
Children who become sexually active in their early teens, on the doorstep of puberty, are still years ahead of having the emotional maturity to weather the intricate and sublime nuances and sub-contexts of truly mature intimacy. My generation invented the sexual revolution -- this last one anyway -- and many of us are still paying for it in our own inability to love maturely and faithfully.
Bill Clinton is not some aberrant freak of nature -- he's the poster child of my generation. You don't want to hear this, but he is representative government in action.
In the early 70s there were only two sexually-transmitted diseases worth writing home about: syphilis and gonorrhea, both easily treated with penicillin. Today there are something like 27 commonly-found diseases. Many of them permanent, for life ... some of them 100% fatal. And I'm told worse ones are on the way.
My 15-year-old daughter is active in a group called the Pure Love Alliance, that is one of many such organizations like Best Friends or True Love Waits - which promote sexual abstinence before marriage. I don't even know the scientific name for genital warts, but my daughter does, and she can spell it. She's scared to death of AIDS and she has somehow absorbed the lesson that condoms are a fraud as disease prevention.
In my parent's day children were helped in the quest to maintain morality by a kind of "therapeutic fear": fear of getting pregnant, fear of the loss of reputation. Those fears are largely not present today.
What healthy, behavior modifying fears that still exist, deal largely with sexually transmitted diseases. Now I am not in favor of AIDS, so please don't misunderstand. But speaking honestly, as a parent of teenagers who is deeply concerned about the importance of refraining from sexual relations until one is emotionally mature and married -- the sobering reality that something like the existence of AIDS instills in my young-adult children, is not unwelcome.
Should the news media directly advocate for morality and chastity and goodness? Is that our job? Or should we in the media simply report the news in an unbiased and impartial fashion? Just give you the straight news and just let the chips fall where they may?
Before I answer that, let me tell you why the "impartial and unbiased" scenario really doesn't happen in the real world. The Washington Times publishes in it's Friday paper, more or less 76 pages plus a 40-page Home Guide supplement and a 20-page Internet supplement. Some other papers are much thicker than ours. Still, enough news happens each day to fill a thousand newspaper pages.
What we choose to spend our news-gathering budget tracking down and writing about -- and which of those stories we finally decide to include in our limited number of pages -- is already a process of selection and elimination made by a person or small team with a set of personally held values and beliefs by which they make the decision to include some stories and exclude others.
We use phrases like "news judgement", or "impartiality", or "professional discernment", but those are all forms of bias -- choices made by an individual based on personal experience and knowledge. Some stories you think are essential without question, will never, ever see the light of day because some editorial gatekeeper cannot see any interest or value in the story. A media without bias is a myth.
So to answer the question about whether the news media should directly advocate for morality and chastity and goodness -- I say yes. I believe Thomas Jefferson would have given a resounding yes. John Adams would have thought the question imbecilic. Every reporter and editor is a human being before he or she is a journalist. One of the missions of human beings is to create a healthy society that fully develops all the noble physical and spiritual dimensions of its people.
The popular entertainment media right now is failing its mission in that regard. The good guys out there: the Media Research Center, Accuracy in Media, Morality in Media, World Media Association, the commentary pages of The Washington Times -- and numerous others -- are plugging away. But in many cases our audiences are terribly outnumbered by any one evening's viewership of the Simpsons.
The new television shows on all the networks are filled with more sexually-charged young people than I have ever seen on regular television. That's what your teenage children are watching and that's where they get their emotional marching orders. Teenagers are sexually charged anyway, even on a calm day. The entertainment media is gasoline on a burning house.
Twenty-seven new and interesting sexual diseases out there, and yet this nubile young woman on the television show "Friends" still sleeps with all her acquaintances on the first date. I don't want to seem overly accusatory or paranoid but it almost seems like the more staff writers of these television shows who turn up HIV-positive, the more promiscuous and sexually unprotected are the characters they create. Somehow there's an enormously powerful disconnect going on.
I don't know what it will ultimately take before we see the end of our decline as a civilization. We may have to "bottom out" like an alcoholic, before we see progress on the road back.
The pendulum may not begin to swing back toward normalcy until after we have full frontal nudity on prime time television, like they have now in parts of Europe. Or comic books for children with cute little girls teaching the basics of how to have sexual intercourse, like I saw on sale in Japan. I don't know what it will take ... 24 hours of programming on the Partial-Birth Abortion Network? ... I just don't know.
We may have to wait a long, cold winter for spring to come. Maybe that is the price of the prevailing neglect of public morality that began at the end of World War II.
The most you can do to modify the behavior of popular culture right now is to bond with like-minded others in refusing to purchase it or support those who sponsor things you find objectionable. Don't let your children watch television that re-enforces an atmosphere of sexual promiscuity, violence and the cynical "put-down" repartee that passes for dialogue on almost 100% of television comedies. And ask others not to watch it.
The points of light out there shining in the darkness are you, the parents. Our responsibility cannot be avoided or handed off, or day-cared out or side-stepped by blaming others. At some point we will get fed up with the garbage, and significant ratings share numbers of people will choose not to watch Ally McBeal have sex in a car wash.
In the meantime, some of us do our best to man the barricades against the onslaught. There are no easy solutions. Right now it's some parents, many parents, against the world. I'm reminded of the lyric from The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the one that speaks of finding God's presence "in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps."
Those watchfires burn here and there.
A growing number of people are choosing to homeschool their children, rather than send them to public schools whose agendas they can't control. Each one of those parents represents a watchfire burning on the hillside in the night. A growing number of parents are taking back the television remote, saying no to weekday prime time TV. They represent individual watchfires too. Teen organizations promoting pre-marital abstinence are gaining in membership and social influence as they improve their ability to market themselves. Occasionally a television show like "Touched by an Angel" comes along, which uses a spiritual context to send messages about the importance of living unselfishly. I loved The Cosby Show for what it did as a role model for fatherhood.
Sometimes a rare individual, like Reverend Moon, will found a newspaper like The Washington Times, which consciously plants its flag on the side of family values and time-honored noble virtues in the great cultural war in which our society is now engaged. A newspaper that, everyday, brings together on its pages leading thinkers in social issues, education, parenting, politics -- and that helps sponsor media discussion forums like this one.
The Media watchdogs, like the Media Research Center, are watching everything and taking names and writing letters and fomenting revolution. So a lot of fires are blazing out there.
In January, NBC Entertainment President Scott Sassa made headlines when he said his network would do more shows with traditional two-parent families and would tone down the sexual antics. Addressing a meeting of the Television Critics Association, Sassa said, "In some cases, we could use a few more words between 'hello' and 'would you sleep with me?'" He also said, "I'm not saying no sex, I'm saying less sex. It depends on the kind of show it is. We're not trying to create The Family Channel here."
By the way, this is what is known as "lip service." NBC was rated number two in sexual content by the people at the Media Research Center, so their moral righteousness is still a work-in-progress. NBC carries shows like "Friends" and "Veronica's Closet."
My remarks are meant to be critical of the mass communication media, but not a blanket condemnation of the profession. I don't want to leave you thinking there are no decent people around here. All the networks, and every newspaper, has individuals who are people of the highest integrity and who take seriously their public trust to convey issues honestly. John Stossel, for example, the Emmy-award winning investigative reporter for ABC's 20/20 is one of these in my opinion. He's intelligent and has a wide range of interests, neither right-wing nor left-wing. And he never blindly buys into conventional thinking. He's respected because he looks at things from all sides, and with a fresh perspective. So please know there are good people in high places.
The "watchfires" mentioned in The Battle Hymn of the Republic are of course the cooking fires of encamped Union Army troops in the Civil War. They are individually ignited and maintained campfires, but seen collectively from across the valley, they light up the night and push back the darkness.
In the case of those pursuing justice, honesty and high standards of public morality, they are like an army that doesn't yet know they're an army.