It used to be a joke that Howard Stern was "King of All Media."
He was, of course, nothing of a sort. It was merely Stern's patented form of braggadocio about being undeniably successful in many different media: radio, excerpted TV broadcasts of his radio show, best-selling memoirs, film versions of the books.
What he had was a giant and insanely loyal audience that he took with him everywhere. His success, then, was modular, not general -- much like Oprah Winfrey's was in a larger way. His actual influence was small -- only on radio was the world infested with miniature Howard Sterns and pairs of Howard Sterns overrunning markets coast to coast with simulations of Stern's peculiarly polarizing forms of post-teen male clubhouse raunch.
I used to watch the excerpts of his radio show on the E! network and found them fascinating, just as I sometimes used to watch Oprah Winfrey. I was never shocked at Stern -- a bit dismayed, admittedly, when Steve O of "Jackass" stapled his own scrotum to his thigh, but mostly from an avuncular mindset I find almost impossible to shake, i.e., I hate to see young people doing self-destructive things. Once I became a parent myself, I had to resign myself to feeling that way.
Stern, of course, was a parent, too, and clearly felt exactly as I did when presented with Steve O's self-mutilation. On the other hand, it all happened on his radio show and was narrated to a national media audience that could laugh at all the ridiculous, even horrific, things people will do for public validation.
No fair-minded journalist in American media who had ever -- even once -- conducted a celebrity interview could deny that Stern, when he wanted to be, was a masterful interviewer, leading guests into verboten subjects and eye-opening admissions with almost contemptuous ease.
But Stern wasn't even remotely "King of All Media." He was merely a privileged media prince who usually got away with murder but was also swatted down occasionally when real royalty (not to mention chancellors of the exchequer) could rouse themselves to notice him.
That's why he went to satellite radio, where his presence in America would be much smaller but his freedoms vastly larger.
The irony is this: As he, at long last, takes an antiseptic version of his act to the American mainstream -- he is joining the judges on "America's Got Talent" in weekly prime time on NBC -- he has truly become "King of All Media."
If you look around, you can recognize an unavoidable fact: It's Howard Stern's world. The rest of us just live in it. Howard Stern is no longer just a man, he is pervasive media philosophy. Once upon a time, he was called a "shock jock." Would-be "shock" was how he got attention in highly competitive radio. Wherever there was a self-confessed drugged-out idiot with a staple gun, he'd always have that attention.
In the world of modern media, shock has become a part of survival.
The American news magazine is -- sadly -- a struggling form in the media age. So in its desperation, it is adapting Sternian tactics in a hostile Internet world. Time magazine's way of telling newsstand buyers that it contains a story about "attachment parenting" is to show a slim and beautiful young mother breast-feeding a strapping 3-year-old.
"Shock" over the cover exploded, with lots of "tsk-tsks" and hands wrung by people who were forced to notice it -- just like radio-averse Americans who kept on getting Stern's name and antics shoved into their faces.
Newsweek's current cover shows Barack Obama under a halo and pronounces him "America's first gay president" (much the way Bill Clinton was ironically called "America's first black president"). We all know, of course, Obama is not gay, but his first-ever use of the presidency to endorse -- even provisionally -- support of gay marriage is, in its own dignified way, a kind of Howard Stern tactic. It's Newsweek's version of the U.S. commander-in-chief commanding our attention, whether we want to give it to him or not.
Magazine covers have been shocking for many decades. George Lois' covers for Esquire Magazine in the 1960s managed to "Stern" their way into people's reluctant attentions -- thug heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston, for instance, wearing a Santa Claus hat in mean-looking camera close-up and, most famously, My Lai massacre perpetrator William Calley embracing a small Vietnamese child. Who can ever forget the cover of a National Lampoon that showed a revolver stuck into the ear of a scared pooch and the cover-line threat "Buy this magazine or we'll shoot this dog"?
It's all just variations on ancient media attention-grabbing of the "headless man in topless bar" stripe.
The difference now is that in an Internet age, all media are as avid for attention as a paranoid and fanatic young Stern was when he first forced himself onto a national radio audience.
It is nothing if not ironic symmetry that Stern -- at this exact moment -- is appearing weekly in network prime time to prove exactly how sensible, compassionate and sentimental he really is in a world where dignity is so often the first thing jettisoned by people in search of fame.
Obviously, the Stern of his "please listen" radio boys club isn't the exact same Stern one would find discussing family or world affairs with his daughters and his second wife. Nevertheless, the deeper needs of those who have demonized him already launched a storm of protests before he even appeared on "America's Got Talent" (his debut was Monday night).
Howard the Demon is a fantasy crucial to the needs of that America that was raised to deplore everything his "shocks" seemed to promote -- all that post-'60s sexual freedom that American Puritanism and fundamentalism still reject and that feminism had to find again (lest its blanket '70s horror at all "objectification" revert back to fundamentalism indistinguishable from a blanket Puritan "thou shalt not.")
Not all of our fellow citizens are ready for an America that can make blatant magazine cover jokes about "our first gay president" and attachment parenting to grab attention. Nor, no doubt, are they ready for someone with Stern's history at 8 p.m. Mondays on NBC.
I honestly feel sorry for them -- not enough to want to appease them, but I hope they get past the shock soon. Stern is vastly more complex than he has been moronically caricatured to be.
And it is now, as I said, Howard Stern's media world. The rest of us just live in it.
And are forced to learn.