Bill O’Reilly cannot help himself. In case you had not heard, the born-again Christian that the right most loves to despise (well, maybe after Jimmy Carter), Jane Fonda, said cunt on the Today Show. Of late it seems that it was apropos to a discussion of the Vagina Monologues. For Catholic Bill this was another excuse to pronounce and denounce how lefty elitist secular values are coarsening and down right ruining western culture.
There is no doubt that profanity is enjoying a friggin renaissance these days. It’s a prime feature of The Daily Show with John Stewart (where its bleeped out), Real Time with Bill Maher (where its not), and above all Penn and Teller’s Bullshit (where Penn called the scriptures the “damned Bible”). South Park is renowned for its vulgarity. Sex and the City may have tried, but Deadwood must have set the small screen record for use of the term “fuck.” Foul mouths are not just a cable thing. I’ve heard the word screw used as a term for sexual intercourse on the network primetime dramas Cashmere Mafia, and on Desperate Housewives in the 9:00-10:00 slot on a Sunday evening. Sitcoms kids say penis. Also allowed these days on broadcast primetime are bitch, son of a bitch, bastard, crap, feces, ass, anal, poop and pee. The Ken Burns PBS documentary on WW II broadcast the correct wordage for SNAFU — it is not “situation normal, all fouled up.” When CBS aired the documentary 9/11 on the anniversary of the event in 2002 and again in 2006, the network deliberately did not bleep out the stream of fucks and shits that emerged from the mouths of the firemen as they faced the worst catastrophe in their lives. The last point brings out a telling point. By no means is ready profanity a feature limited to the liberal elites like Joe Bagaent. Obscenity bleeps grace the conversation of the working class blokes featured on the cable channel programs like Ice Road Truckers, American Chopper, Deadly Catch and Axmen. For all the talk of the right wing Christianizing of the US military, it remains a bastion of profanity, to the extent that American troops have often antagonized Iraqis with their hard-core language. These days smutty talk is as American as apple pie.
Which has O’Reilly and company tearing their hair out. Back in 2004 — when after their seemingly splendid election victory the conservative elite met in Washington DC to discuss how to at long last kill off the damn counterculture and win the culture back for all that is good and American — Linda Chavez complained about how, while waiting at a red light, she was assaulted by someone else’s vehicular boom box blasting out “an incredibly vile rap song, I couldn’t avoid hearing simulated sexual intercourse.” Linda went on to demand that a way be found to put a stop to such cultural depravity. The chief organization fighting foul mouths is the Parent’s Television Council, established by Catholic L. Brent Bozell. When CBS refused to announce that it would defuck 9/11 the PTA went ballistic with a campaign to get the network suits to change their mind. Didn’t work.
The right has had some success in their cultural campaign. The FCC has long banned George Carlin’s seven dirty words and other naughty items from the broadcast networks. But even in the opening stages of the Bush II administration the exclusion seemed to be slipping, with sexual profanities spontaneously uttered in a nonsexual context tacitly being allowed. But folks started to complain, and the 2004 Super Bowl/Janet Jackson clothing glitch inspired a FCC crackdown, with the government censors throwing newly authorized megafines at the TV and radio networks and their affiliates for their broadcast transgressions. Howard Stern was driven off broadcast radio into a multi-million satellite deal. The networks have not, however, rolled over in supine submission. This is not the 1950s when primetime married couples were shown sleeping in twin beds (except, for some reason, on the Donna Reed Show, and that couple was hot). It is the early 2000s when the networks are engaged in a no holds barred ratings struggle for their very survival.
Here’s the thing. O’Reilly railed against Jane saying a slutty sex word over on NBC. That shot is as easy as it is cheap. The arch-Christian Bill should remember the Bible inspired passage about those living in glass houses chucking stones at others. Bill (Fox News) O’Reilly works for News Corporation, which is owned by fellow Christian Rupert Murdoch. Here is where we come down to brass tacks. As far as I know, the man of unwavering principle has not been directing his holier than thou societal ire at his own boss. Murdoch’s $60 billion News Corp also includes Fox Films and FOX Broadcasting, neither of which even tries to be culturally chaste. The once upstart and now dominant FOX network gained notoriety — and the big ratings — by pushing the broadcast sleaze factor. Of the networks FOX is the one that the PTC is most up in arms about. Among the broadcaster’s salacious primetime fare was the reality program Married By America. One 2003 episode featured digitally obscured nudity and whip cream covered strippers — i. e. your typical bachelor party. The FCC thought it was worth $1.2 million in fines from the network and its affiliates. The penalty was recently reduced to a mere $91 K, a few minutes worth of advertising time. Did a chastened Murdoch apologize and cough up the money to help atone for his sins?
Please, please do not make me laugh.
News Corp. and FOX have fought the FCC from the get go and refuse to pay anything. Why? For the same reason that O’Reilly says he opposes profanity. Principle. The corporation calls the FCC actions “patently unconstitutional.” News Corp. is also refusing to go along with the FCC fines for the utterance by Sher and Nicole Rickies of “fuck” and “shit” respectively during their appearances on the Billboard Music Awards on FOX in 2002 and 2003. The Supreme Court has agreed to take up that case this coming fall. It is not just FOX fighting the censors, so are the other networks. That is one reason why CBS broadcast 9/11 undeleted in 2006. They wanted to establish the principle that in some cases explicit vulgarity is part of the story. There are other practical problems as well. Such as when the FCC said it was all right to broadcast Saving Private Ryan unbleeped because of the historical context of the work.
It is grand fun getting after the sanctimonious, self proclaimed man of principle O’Reilly for his habit of beating up on those who dare define the culture downwards — except when it comes to his boss whose media fortune was built in part on sleaze all the way back to his tabloid days, and when even the news network he works for is prone to the salacious tabloid journalism documented at Foxnewsporn.com. But for all the amusement there is a larger point to be made.
The traditionalist right claims that they want to remake the culture by returning it to the more genteel times when public discourse was not nearly so crude. Never mind that those days were when church-going folk were torturing and lynching blacks in obscene public spectacles. In any case, the anti-vulgarity project provides the right with an ideal wedge issue, one that never ends because the task is pretty much hopeless. Popular profanity is here to stay for two main reasons.
First, the pertinent corporations are pro-profanity. It is an extension of the argument I made in “Buckley’s Big Mistake.” It is in the interest of the media to promote profanity. It is all part of the Darwinian competition for greater audience share, especially among the much coveted youth market. Once upon a time the big networks could get away with being verbally chaste because there was no competition. Now they are locked in a bitter struggle against cable and satellite for viewership, and they are not winning. One of the big advantages enjoyed by cable/satellite is that it is private commerce, so the producers can supply their clients with anything they want, all the way to the hardest core porn. This freedom is giving cable/satellite a big ratings leg up over broadcasters, especially among the youth cohort the media craves most of all. On broadcast radio the fucks are being digitally deleted out of the first rock hit to incorporate fuck into the lyrics, The Who’s “Who Are You?.” That makes the social conservatives happy, but it does not do much for the broadcasters who are losing audience to satellite and especially the web where the hard hitting word is left in its proper places. As for television, as long as pay-to-view media can say whatever it wants to, the networks have no choice but to do all they can to keep up in this piece of the capitalist game of survival of the fittest. Which brings us to the second reason that the right has no realistic prospect of actually winning their war on crudity. The public likes it.
Murdoch knows his audience. There’s lots of money to be made in the profane. It’s the foundation of his wealth. Pop culture always tends toward the vulgar, the only way to suppress it is to beat it down with a big stick and even that does only so much. A very large portion of the American population, perhaps a majority, enjoys being able to cuss now and then. They want to be able to hear their pundits, rappers, rockers, bloggers and comedians let the expletives fly. Its fun. It’s liberating. Sometimes a good fuck or shit is just what the situation calls for. What lots of folks do not want is that return to the delicate days or yore when propriety ruled. One of the standing jokes of FOX television’s fantastically irreligious The Simpsons is that the born again Ned Flanders and his godly boys are terrified of any hint of crude language (to the degree that gosh and darn must be excised from Hardy Boy novels), quite unlike the cool bad boy Bart. Let’s face it. O’Reilly, Chavez, Bill Bennett, George Will, Shawn Hannity, John Gibson, Glenn Beck, Chuck Colson, Phyllis Schlafly and the like are a dull and prissy lot of square stiffs. They cannot compete with the hip sensibilities of the modern culture.
Now here’s a dirty little secret. A lot of conservatives like their profanity too. Whatever Ann Coulter may be, she’s not unhip. In her Godless: The Church of Liberalism, she attacked evolutionary science with the statement “do whatever you feel like doing — screw your secretary, kill Grandma, abort your defective child — Darwin says it will benefit humanity” (emphasis added). The 2005 cover Time article on Ann claims that “she’s not one of those conservatives who won’t say “f___” two or three times over dinner.” Remember during the 2000 campaign when Bush Jr. told Cheney that a New York Times reporter was a “major league asshole?” Rather than chastising George on the use of an inappropriate word the future veep heartily agreed. Hardly surprising, since Dick later threw fuck at a Democratic member of Congress on the Senate floor (the Washington Post story that covered the event printed the whole word, which is still posted on their website; the paper has not maintained this tradition). When a nice elderly Republican voter asked John McCain how best to defeat the “bitch” Hillary most conservatives seemed to treat it with the amusement the candidate did. Rather than righteously condemning their heroes’ and their supporters’ verbal transgressions in order to save the culture from going potty mouth, traditionalists widely accepted the verbal taunts as understandable and feisty reactions to liberal perfidy that show how manly conservative men and women can be when a few choices words are called for.
That the right has already lost this piece of the culture war is confirmed by how many conservatives are willing if not eager to abandon the alleged principles in order to appear on The Daily Show and Real Time in order to tap into their large, youthful audience that cheer the well placed curse. Murdoch specifically and the corporate media in general have too much invested in the profane culture to abandon it. If Rupert gave orders to his Fox entertainment empire to clean up its act he would lose audience share in the competition against the other broadcast and especially the pay-to-view networks. He and the other network CEOs and suits won’t do it because they know that the public in the main prefers to keep their freedom to swear. Even more than rock and roll — which, of course, is slang for screwing — profanity is here to stay.