Scary Move

When Both Parties Team Up to Target Hollywood, Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid!

Call it I Still Know What You Did in Your Focus Group Last Summer. As the Senate Commerce Committee met last Wednesday for another round of Hollywood bashing, the aura of a genre film was in the air. There were familiar fulminations, dutifully dire warnings, and the pretense of repentance from studio execs. To seasoned observers of the censorship scene, these proceedings looked like a horror movie they'd seen once too often. "It's the same old same old," said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I'm always surprised when this is not happening."

But there was an ominous departure from the script. After the hearing, John McCain wouldn't let the maiden go. He vowed to unleash the monster, in the form of the Federal Trade Commission, whose report on the marketing of R-rated movies and video games was the prequel to this scary movie. McCain broadly hinted at a new FTC investigation and slyly noted that the agency is weighing its power to charge the entertainment industry with unfair trade practices. Such a complaint could lead to discussions with movie, video game, and record companies about a new universal rating system. If the industry failed to fall in line, the FTC could file formal charges, triggering a civil liberties crisis that the courts would have to resolve.

In such a showdown, there's good reason to believe the studios would prevail. Civil libertarians cite a long string of victories against censorship laws, including the recent Communications Decency Act, shot down by the Supreme Court. But there's also some precedent on the other side. The courts allow a different standard for defining obscenity "as to minors." No one has tried to regulate violence in the same way. (The main reason why American ratings are easier on blood and guts than on sex is that they can be.) But if the FTC came armed with evidence that violent entertainment is being aimed at children, and that it actually harms kids, the courts just might permit some restrictions. Weighing the odds in such a battle, Marvin Johnson, the ACLU's legislative counsel, says, "It's not a slam dunk for either side."

illustration: Carly Castillon

It seems unlikely that the entertainment industry will let things get so far. Especially since, as Lynn Cheney told a shareholders meeting at Seagram's, parent company of the record label that produces the bash-rapper Eminem: "More and more good citizens find appealing the idea that government regulation should remove entertainment industry products from the public square."

Cheney is right, up to a point. Most Americans don't favor banning violent or explicit entertainment, but a growing majority does think the government should play a role in keeping this stuff from minors. Most people believe pop culture is as responsible as the ready availability of guns for school shootings like the one at Columbine. And more than 80 percent of those polled by the Gallup organization think stricter regulation of movies and music would stop such crimes. As civil libertarians never tire of pointing out, there is no proof of a connection between representational and real-world violence—but the public thinks otherwise.

To students of censorship, it's déjà vu all over again. They cite the age-old American conviction that culture causes crime, and the endless cycle of crackdowns on nasty entertainment, from dime novels at the turn of the century to comics—and, of course, rock 'n' roll—in the 1950s. To Strossen, "The issue emerges when there's an election, some awful act of violence, and the invention of a new medium,"—in this case the Internet.

But buried beneath the surface of the polls is the reason why this issue won't go away after Election Day. Both parties have too much to gain from keeping the heat on.

For the Democrats, the rewards of culture bashing are clear. This is one heck of a way to take back the "family issues" that have been a showcase for the right. And the Gores are veteran bird-doggers when it comes to this constituency. Ever since her husband was elected to Congress in 1976, Tipper Gore has stalked sex and violence in the media. During Gore's first presidential campaign, she cofounded the Parents' Music Resource Center to demand an X rating for records that mentioned fornication, homosexuality, or bestiality. (Does that refer to the Beastie Boys?) Tipper didn't hesitate to work with Christian fundamentalists, including a board member of Focus on the Family, the antigay group that spearheaded the drive against the National Endowment for the Arts. Commentator Alexander Cockburn reports that the PMRC sent memos to the Recording Industry Association of America urging labels to drop transgressive artists. Through all of Tipper's crusades, Al Gore stood smilingly by, and on his recent Oprah appearance, he boasted, "She was early and she was right."

To gauge Gore's intentions you have to regard his personal war on pop culture as part of a long-term strategy to undermine the alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right. Gore is betting that people of faith aren't free-market fanatics; it's the moral issues that have kept this largely Southern constituency wedded to the Republicans, and if the Democrats can show their own resolve to curb the culture, they may be able to mitigate the impact of their stand on abortion and gay rights (especially as the GOP lightens up on these issues).

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