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Variety editorial

Print publications, thankfully, are not subjected to a seven-second delay. So we can broadcast this opinion live: Viacom’s zero-tolerance radio decree is the most pathetic piece of fallout from the Super Bowl halftime show.

Still under scrutiny after CBS’ one-second shot seen ’round the world, Viacom president Mel Karmazin told execs at all 180 Infinity radio stations they would be fired if they violate the new obscenity policy. “Don’t screw up,” Karmazin was quoted as saying. “This company won’t be a poster child for indecency.”

Chief suspects under the Viacom banner include syndicated hosts like Howard Stern, Don Imus and Tom Leykis. Local personalities are also on alert, perhaps not a completely unwarranted step given a stunt involving sex at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Infinity duo Opie & Anthony that led to their firing.

It isn’t just shock-jocks trying to change their ways. Incredibly, the company’s all-news stations in L.A., KNX and KFWB, vowed not to air live interviews (heaven forbid they deliver us the news as it happens), except when they involve “newsmakers” such as Gov. Schwarzenegger.

What does all of this have to do with Janet Jackson’s right breast? Next to nothing, of course, though Karmazin had to do something tangible to prove to Congress that he would clean up Viacom’s act.

Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner, has delivered no such edict. So it could get interesting if one of Karmazin’s ratings heavyweights crosses him on obscenity. Would Mel let simply walk across the street and make millions for the competition?

Business logic aside, this policy is disturbing on free-speech grounds. Washington is bound to dog showbiz with content issues, but perhaps Karmazin could have taken a cue from NBC, which stood up to lawmakers’ demands in 1997 to assent to an expanded ratings system.

Must every howl from the Capitol be parroted by companies charged with safeguarding what few freedoms that still exist on our airwaves?

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