JACKSON TIMBERLAKE
David J. Phillip  /  AP
Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson poured gas on the debate over American values with their Super Bowl performance.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 2/11/2004 8:52:21 AM ET 2004-02-11T13:52:21

Are Democrats out of synch with American attitudes on pop culture and values? Are they ceding the culture war to the Republicans without firing a shot?

Consider what Howard Dean said about the Federal Communications Commission investigating Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl stunt. Dean: "I think the FCC is being pretty silly about investigating this. There's a great many far worse things on television that you can inadvertently turn on when you happen to be cruising through cable at regular viewing hours. I'm probably affected in some ways by the fact that I'm a doctor, so it's not exactly an unusual phenomenon for me."

So Dean thinks it’s "silly" for the FCC to investigate and there are "far worse things" on TV. Judging by a sample of newspaper editorials, a good part of America disagrees.

  • Contra Costa Times: "FCC Chairman Michael Powell said it best when he called it a ‘classless, crass and deplorable stunt.’ We could not agree more."
  • Fort Wayne News Sentinel: "The only person who said anything halfway sensible was FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who called the stunt "classless, crass and deplorable" and ordered an investigation."
  • Miami Herald: "What's indecent? you ask. We would like to know, too. We hope that the FCC finds a better answer than one vaguely tied to the volume of phone calls."
  • Brookhaven, Miss., Daily Leader: "Powell has called the Jackson-Timberlake debacle a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. We think that's a good way to sum up the entire halftime show."

Other newspapers saw a deeper threat to America lurking in the halftime show message.

  • Charleston Post & Courier: "Sunday night's Super Bowl halftime show further revealed the continuing coarsening of America's entertainment culture."
  • Los Angeles Times: "It could be a springboard for a national conversation about popular American culture — the one the United States exports and extols abroad — and just how coarse this country wants it to become."
  • Bradenton Herald: "This is not America — it's Hollywood's, television's and the music industry's hijacking of American culture and values."
  • Biloxi Sun Herald: "Are there more important issues in the world today? Certainly. But the coarsening of popular culture is no small cause for alarm."
  • Denver Post: "What's funny at the corner bar is inappropriate for children in a family setting."
  • Hartford Courant: "One doesn't have to be a prude to say, 'Cut out the X-rated extravaganza and stick to sports.'"
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "There was a time in this great land when the Super Bowl halftime show featured 'Up With People,' a relentlessly cheerful collection of well-scrubbed young people who wore matching polyester outfits and sang perky songs.
  • Cleveland Plain Dealer: "In just a split second of prime-time stupidity, the Super Bowl fell into the toilet bowl."
  • Tacoma News Tribune: "The entire MTV production was an example of American pop culture at its most vulgar."

A far cry from Howard Dean’s do-what-you-want position. Dean picked one heckuva time to turn libertarian on us. Dean and his fellow libertarians might find solace that his position has support from one newspaper. Too bad for Dean, however — that newspaper is in Las Vegas. Las Vegas Review-Journal: "But please, are we really to believe the answer is for the FCC to start assessing fines against everyone involved? Federal regulation of the media increasingly resembles a poor sap trying to stomp out a burning bag full of doggie dung left on his porch at Halloween."

Will the culture and value wars be a flashpoint in the 2004 elections? In some circles, it already is. In the Georgia Senate race, Republican candidate Herman Cain is running this TV ad: "The Hollywood crowd is attacking our president. They seem pretty angry that President Bush didn't ask permission from France to defend our country. Angry he dug Saddam Hussein out of a hole and put him in jail. Angry he's fighting the war on terror abroad to keep us safe here at home. I believe we should support our troops and our president. It's conservative common sense."

The battle of the ads
And running for Congress in Michigan, Republican Brad Smith is running a radio ad that starts off by quoting celebrities bashing President Bush. Jessica Lange: "I despise him." Michael Moore: "We are against this war, Mister Bush. Shame on you, Mister Bush." Announcer: "Every day, from Hollywood to Washington, our values are under assault. Ready to fight back?" Brad Smith: "I'm running for Congress to fight back against extreme partisan Democrats and the liberal media who impose Hollywood values on American families."

Surely culture will erupt as a major issue in the presidential race. It’s just a matter of time —and polling. Yet Democrats seem to be reluctant to side with America’s desire for more cultural decency — and less Hollywood lunacy. Surely this is a freebie issue that a shrewd Democrat can embrace.

One tried. When he dropped out of the race, Joe Lieberman said, "I will continue to fight for a politics that puts the national interest ahead of special interests or partisan interests. For a Democratic Party that speaks openly and confidently about the importance of values and faith in our lives."

Lieberman — and the Democrats still in the race — might start with Janet Jackson.

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