School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Boob-Popping as Public Diplomacy by Richard Reeves

Yahoo News

Thu Feb 5, 9:22 PM ET

By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- I missed the whole thing. I was watching the Super Bowl with a couple of other guys and when the halftime show began -- very reminiscent of the early days of the Iraq (news - web sites) war -- we talked on, all still facing the big screen as it filled with smoke and fire and people screaming. But none of us saw Justin popping Janet's boob.

What's all the fuss about?

I mean this is a free country, so you can always switch the channel. You could watch the History Channel and get the inside scoop on how Lyndon Johnson lured John Kennedy to Dallas and then murdered him. Or you could watch that mini-series about Ronald Reagan (news - web sites) as a doddering old fool. Or, Britney and Madonna (news - web sites) and Janet's brother, the strange one. The news channels have some good stuff on gay marriage, cannibalism, or the celebrity trial of the day.

And if none of that is free speech enough for you, there's always the Internet and that Paris Hilton film, whoever Paris Hilton is. Or you can listen to Howard Stern, who has raised dirty old man to an art form.

Henry VIII would love it -- he would also, by the way, have made a great reality show -- if indeed he was the first one to say: "I don't care what the people do, as long as they don't do it in the streets and scare the horses."

No problem. The horses are gone, so now we can finally do it in the streets. And if it gets worse, whatever "worse" means, we can institute a witness or witless protection program for television executives -- the ones who are so shocked each time they produce more schlock in the streets.

Does it matter at all? Well, it seems to concern some conservatives in the streets of Washington. Michael Powell -- the powerful Powell, the one who is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (news - web sites) -- says he is outraged. His indignation confuses me as much as the halftime music, because he is one of the people so hot for deregulation of all sorts. Is it possible that there's some connection between the deregulation so dear to economic conservatives, the freeing of media corporations from restraints on ownership and content, and the down-and-dirty garbage so offensive to cultural conservatives?

Naw! The great flag-wearing poobahs of News Corp., Viacom, General Electric and other conglomerating media would never allow that. My God, the children might be watching! And certainly those upright citizens would never allow news to be debased, melded into a branch of entertainment.

Yeah, right. But the biggest problem may not be that they are throwing electronic garbage into our own streets, but that the same stuff is being profitably delivered (and imitated) around the world. Anyone who has spent time in the Muslim world -- which has its own weird puritan and repressed problems with sex and sexuality -- knows that what Britney Spears or Janet Jackson shows often has greater impact on views of America than what is said by Michael Powell's dad, the secretary of state. You may remember that one of the more crazed critics of what we call entertainment was Osama bin Laden (news - web sites).

Like it or not, bad taste and mass prurience are part and parcel of the American way, at least as seen from many other cultures. That is one of the reasons American image campaigns, featuring the fact that the United States is a very religious country, are laughed at or cursed in many other countries. That combined with our self-righteous bullying around the world is part of the reason that in much if not most of the world, "the bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States."

That quote is from testimony to Congress last Wednesday by Edward Djerejian (cq), a former American ambassador to both Syria and Israel. He was the director of a congressionally funded study of attitudes toward the United States in Islamic countries. Djerejian appeared before a House committee with another former ambassador, Margaret Tutwiler, who was recently appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) to take charge of "public diplomacy" -- that's a euphemism for propaganda and other techniques of public relations.

"Our country has a problem in far too many parts of the world," she testified, "... a problem we have regrettably gotten into over the years through both Democratic and Republican administrations, and a problem that does not lend itself to a quick fix or a single solution or a simple plan."

No, it is not simple. Giving people a more favorable and more accurate picture of who we really are, said Tutwiler, who served as our ambassador to Morocco, is going to take years of hard work. It might even be helpful to keep them away from our televised boob-poppers -- if we can.

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