Sex buys news ratings. Who knew?

While everybody’s bitching (self included) about the morality police at the FCC, there are events that demand we take a step back from time-to-time, so that we can take in the whole forest.

I’m talking about the antics of WOIO-TV in Cleveland under the leadership of Bill Applegate and Steve Doerr. Unless you’ve been asleep for several days, you’re aware of their latest stunt to boost ratings — anchor Sharon Reed getting naked on camera to participate in one of those mass nude “art” photography shoots in Cleveland last summer. The event took place in June, but the station held the “story” until the November sweeps. The station garnered the highest news ratings in its history Monday night, when the “story” ran.

So the event is the talk of media circles everywhere, with the most common theme being what this stunt has done and is doing for journalism’s credibility. That, however, is at least a secondary issue, for it seems to me that we ought to be talking about what this says about our culture in general.

I don’t know Bill or Steve, but I know Rob, the promotion director at WOIO-TV who has likely had a ball with the “story.” I don’t believe we should be trashing them for being so up front about what has been a behind-the-curtain secret all these years. Sex sells. Everybody in local TV knows that, and we’ve been using it for years. That WOIO-TV has raised its visibility isn’t so much a journalistic issue as it is one of cultural transparency. WOIO is at least honest about what they’re doing, and I applaud them for that.

But while I understand what they’ve done and why, I must object.

The slogan of my company is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Self-restraint is an important part of the New Media revolution, but it’s an absolutely essential element in a free culture. That WOIO-TV would make this stunt the centerpiece of their November sweeps says volumes about the lack of self-restraint in our society as a whole. Look at the mirror they’ve held up for all of us to see. We’ve lost our internal governor, and there is no such thing as an acceptable list of “standards” anymore. As I’ve written in the past, a free society is impossible unless the people being governed have an internal governor. A culture based on promises and oaths, must be backed up by something, and unless that internal governor exists, people will be governed from without. License is a doorway to totalitarianism, and to quote Milton, “License they mean when they cry, Liberty!”

Which brings me back to my point. As we complain about those we pay to maintain the envelope that we agree — as a people — defines us, we must accept that, from time-to-time, they’re going to say “no.” If not, who and what are we as a people? If we view this entirely as a political matter, we miss the bigger picture.

Throughout human history, art has always pushed the envelope that defines the culture. Intuitively sensing what’s happening around them, artists reflect that in their work. The prophets of old were always the sensitive ones, and what our culture needs now is to look around and ask why this is happening? Why does Janet Jackson show her boob? Why do Howard Stern and a host of clones “shock” us with their language (does anybody remember Lenny Bruce?) and suggestive program themes? Why does Desperate Housewives succeed and why is a naked actress from the show jumping into the arms of Terrell Owens in the intro to Monday Night Football? We shouldn’t be asking why an art gallery in the South yanks a few paintings they deem objectionable; we need to ask why they were painted that way in the first place.

We don’t ask these questions, because we really don’t want to know the answers.

Personal note: I struggle with these types of issues in examining Pomos and the way they’re evolving the culture, and it’s why I don’t believe that pure Postmodernism can possibly be the dominant force in any society. Since Postmodernism rejects grand narratives, then it cannot claim that status for itself. Besides, it’s intellectual foolishness to reject all absolutes. So what will we have downstream? Much in the way Modernism didn’t totally reject all that Premodernism offered (faith), a Postmodern era won’t entirely reject either of its predecessors.

I say that, because the matter of self restraint seems to fly in the face of Postmodernism. It doesn’t, however, when the experiences of those on either side of the question are considered. Nothing is black and white in the Age of Participation until experience says it’s so, and even then, it’s an individual choice. A mind made up through one experience (or a friend’s experience) can only be changed by another. This is why it’s so important that we all understand that this age is one of sharing experiences, not lecturing from institutional pedestals. The Internet is the ideal forum for this to take place.

We’re at a very dangerous time in our history, I believe. The enemy is within us, not without. Unless and until we resolve that, we’re sitting ducks for totalitarianism and its thought police.

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