It’s no secret that Janet Jackson paid a steep price when her 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show performance alongside newly solo Justin Timberlake concluded with a “wardrobe malfunction” on live television. The half-million dollar fine imposed by the FCC was a slap on the wrist, but the damage inflicted on Jackson’s career is arguably still being felt, 14 years later. According to a new story on Huffington Post, that’s because Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS (which aired the Super Bowl), had a years-long vendetta again Jackson for “embarrassing” him and failing to adequately repent for what he believes was an intentional stunt meant to drum up controversy.
Huffington Post reporter Yassar Ali writes that both “allies and critics” say Moonves doesn’t forget his “enemies,” whom he “targets” for “revenge … on his terms.” According to Ali’s anonymous sources, Moonves developed a “fixation” with Jackson when she didn’t offer him a tearful, pleading apology the way Timberlake allegedly did. As a result, Moonves permitted Timberlake — who had ripped off part of Jackson’s bustier, exposing her pierced nipple for all of 9/16ths of a second — to perform at the Grammy Awards (which also aired on CBS) a week after the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Jackson — who did issue a public apology the day after the Super Bowl — was banned as a Grammy presenter and discouraged from attending the show at all, thus losing a valuable opportunity to promote her new album Damita Jo.
Timberlake won an award that night and offered a brief apology to anyone “offended” by the “unintentional, completely regrettable” incident. This was a complete 180 from the comments he made to Access Hollywood the night of the Super Bowl, which cheekily implied the “nip slip” might have been intentional. A few days later, likely around the same time as he was allegedly begging Moonves for his forgiveness, Timberlake was suddenly a lot less adamant that the the incident was accidental, and instead portrayed himself as an unwilling participant, leaving Jackson to carry the burden all by herself.
The Huffington Post’s report is, in some ways, not really news. A 2014 Rolling Stone timeline of the incident and its fallout, marking the 10-year anniversary, makes clear that executives from Viacom — the parent company of both CBS and MTV — blacklisted Jackson, forbidding any of its properties, including its long list of radio affiliates, from giving her exposure. Jackson’s previous albums had gone double and triple platinum and her career had produced dozens of number one hits; while Damita Jo was hardly a flop — it debuted at Number Two on the Billboard Top 200 — its sales still suffered from a lack of radio promotion.
Yet what the Huffington Post article makes clear is just how long Moonves allegedly stayed angry. According to one of their sources, the CBS chief still had it out for Jackson as recently as 2012, the year her book, True You: A Journey to Finding and Loving Yourself, was published by Simon & Schuster, which is also part of the Viacom/CBS family. One source told Ali that when Moonves found out, he said, “How the fuck did she slip through?” and then allegedly told another source that “Heads were going to roll” over the book deal. Huffington Post has been unable to confirm whether Moonves actually followed through on that promise.
Both Jackson and Moonves’s representatives declined Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
While it’s unclear if Moonves still carries a grudge against Jackson, everyone has seemingly moved on. After an eight-year legal battle, CBS had successfully appealed the $550,000 fine issued by the FCC. In 2014, even FCC chairman Michael Powell, who once said the nip slip was “a new low for primetime TV,” admitted that the controversy had gotten out of hand.
“I personally thought that was really unfair,” Powell told ESPN. “It all turned into being about [Jackson]. In reality, if you slow the thing down, it’s Justin ripping off her breastplate.”
Moonves’s alleged vendetta against Jackson is particularly ironic in light of the recent sexual misconduct allegations that have been made against him. His “embarrassment” over Jackson’s nipple pales in comparison to allegations from six former female employees that Moonves subjected them to unwanted kissing and groping, and damaged their careers as punishment for rejecting him. Moonves has denied the allegations.