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Time Out

The Janet Jackson incident was foreseeable and unfortunate. The extent to which both are true is the extent to which CBS and MTV and, yes, the NFL can all share the blame for heaping up the tinder and dropping the match, their professions of surprise at being engulfed in the ensuing flames notwithstanding.

We have a hard time blaming CBS affiliates for pushing the network to take steps against a repeat performance. It is the stations, not networks, that will be hit with fines and threatened with license revocations.

But the networks should also give only so much. NBC gave too much when it decided not to air a brief glimpse of the breast of an 80-year-old patient in the acclaimed drama ER. The unedited scene would have been the equivalent of the "artistic f-word" the networks were defending elsewhere last week, and airing it could have provided a check on the hysteria.

Hardly had the jaws hit the floor after the Super Bowl when FCC Chairman Michael Powell called for an investigation and Congressman Fred Upton touted his new indecency-crackdown bill.

We are going to assume for the sake of argument that Jackson was telling the truth when she said it was her idea. Collusion by either CBS or MTV in the stunt would be a different editorial, although even that wouldn't warrant the decenter-than-thou barrage from Washington.

We're sorry CBS and MTV misread their target audience, and we're sorry Jackson chose this particular moment to add desperate performance art to her repertoire. There was clearly no more inopportune time, given the zealous calls for broadcast decency. Beyond sensible steps to make sure they have editorial control of their programming, though, the networks should fight the charge toward more regulation.

Sadly, they sent mixed signals to Washington last week.

Coincidentally, the four major networks had previously been asked to explain their positions on indecency to Rep. John Dingell. NBC, which earlier bravely stood against the V-chip on First Amendment grounds, sadly turned its tail and fled the high ground this time around. Seeing that Upton's upped indecency fines were a virtual shoo-in and figuring that, as a practical matter, its stations were unlikely to be targets, NBC chose to back the indecency crackdown.

Fox, by contrast, spoke up for the First Amendment. "The FCC's indecency standard is inherently vague, yet it constitutes a restriction on creative content protected by the First Amendment. Whenever content creators are faced with governmental interference, particularly if the standard for oversight is vague, there is a serious risk of chilling free speech."

That message, not the panic-driven fallout from Janet's exposed breast or ER's covered one, should be the lesson for the week.