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Imus: The TV-Decency Angle

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…because you knew there had to be a TV-decency angle, right?

In the midst of closing my epic about Imusgate yesterday, I received an email press release from our friends at the Parents Television Council:

The Parents Television Council renewed its call for the cable industry to provide true cable choice to consumers so that those who have been offended by the recent spate of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic content are not forced to subsidize such material. In addition to the recent racist and sexist remarks by MSNBC Host Don Imus, the PTC has seen a growing trend in even more shocking, more graphic and more offensive racist, ethnic and religious attacks on advertiser-supported basic cable programs.

“One of the most tragic ironies of this whole Imus incident is that those who have been most harmed by his insensitive remarks will be forced to underwrite his salary as soon as his two-week suspension is over. Outraged consumers should have the ability to ‘unsubscribe’ to MSNBC or other offensive cable networks without having to lose their cable subscription entirely,” said PTC President Tim Winter. [Note: They issued the release before MSNBC killed Imus’ TV show.]

“The Imus comments are only the latest symptom of a larger and more concerning problem. There has been a shocking volume of racist and anti-Semitic material guised as ‘comedy’ on advertiser-supported basic cable television. African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Jews have been specific targets in recent months. The PTC has noted the use of the ‘n-word’ over 140 times in the last two years, including 42 utterances of the n-word in one recent episode of South Park alone.” [Italics mine]

Now I’ll give the PTC credit: they’re using the Imus flap not to agitate for FCC fines or government censorship, but rather to argue that families should be able to buy the channels they like a la carte. I don’t happen to agree with the PTC that “cable choice” should be forced on cable companies by the government, but in principle, I’m for giving people more choice over what they watch–not less, as the PTC often wants to in its calls for removing content that offends them from prime time.

But that South Park reference gets me. I actually cited South Park–that specific episode, in fact–in my Imus piece as an example of a show that transgresses taboos brilliantly, and with a larger purpose. That episode satirized many aspects of the feeding frenzy over controversies like Michael Richards’: the treatment of figures like Jesse Jackson as if they speak for all black Americans; people’s cluelessness as to how racial insults make other races feel; and the attempts to sweep the problems under the rug by quashing any speech that makes anyone uncomfortable.

That’s entirely different from some jerk on the radio calling some college kids whores for yuks. Yeah, it’s offensive; it’s not for everybody. But it’s not hateful, or even close. The PTC–and this has long been my problem with them–doesn’t distinguish between how strong content is used one place or another. To them, an n-word is an n-word is an n-word. The point of my article–and the one good point Imus made in this whole controversy–is that context is everything, and it’s only by exploring the subtleties of language and cultural boundaries that we’re going to get anywhere.

The decency bean counters at the PTC don’t seem to get that: it’s not just quantity, it’s quality.