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2000-09-28

Hollywood and the Elections

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In the second round of this year’s culture wars between Washington and Hollywood, the Motion Picture Association of America yesterday pledged to the Senate Commerce Committee that they would curb, but not guarantee, an end to marketing movies with violent content to underage audiences. Hollywood executives offered a 12-point plan designed to address a Federal Trade Commission report released earlier this month that accused Hollywood of "aggressively" marketing violent films, music and video games to children. [includes rush transcript]

The report had been ordered by Clinton last year shortly after the high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, in response to fears that raw popular culture had furnished some of the mental climate in which the killers’ grievances festered. In last week’s Senate Commerce hearing, chaired by Senator John McCain, vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman and Lynne Cheney, former chair of the NEH and wife of the Republican nominee for vice president, found themselves on common ground, both decrying the state of the entertainment industry.

Vice President Al Gore and Senator Lieberman gave the entertainment industry six months to shape up its marketing practices or face unnamed retaliation from Washington. But at a movie industry fundraising event days later, the Democratic nominees for president and vice president softened their tone considerably and assured their Hollywood supporters that they didn’t actually intend to censor them, they just hoped for more self-regulation from the industry.

Well, it appears that the motion picture industry has taken a step in that direction.

Guests:

  • Dan Gerstein, spokesman for senator and vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman.
  • Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies and director of the Project on Media Ownership at NYU
  • Henry Jenkins, the director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to talk about Hollywood and the Olympics and the second — rather, Hollywood and politics, though they can all be confused. In the second round of this year’s culture wars between Washington and Hollywood, the Motion Picture Association of America yesterday pledged to the Senate Commerce Committee that they would curb, but not guarantee, an end to marketing movies with violent content to underage audiences. Hollywood executives offered a 12-point plan designed to address a Federal Trade Commission report released earlier this month that accused Hollywood of "aggressively" marketing violent films, music and video games to kids.

The report had been ordered by President Clinton last year, shortly after the high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, in response to fears that raw popular culture had furnished some of the mental climate in which the killers’ grievances festered.

In last week’s Senate Commence hearing chaired by Senator John McCain, vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman and Lynne Cheney, former chair of the NEH and wife of the Republican nominee for vice president, found themselves on common ground, both decrying the state of the entertainment industry. Vice President Al Gore and Senator Lieberman gave the entertainment industry six months to shape up its marketing practices or face unnamed retaliation from Washington. But at a movie industry fundraising event days later, the Democratic nominees for president and vice president softened their tone considerably and assured their Hollywood supporters that they didn’t actually intend to censor them, just hoped for more self-regulation from the industry.

We’re joined right now by Dan Gerstein, who is a spokesperson for senator and vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman.

Can you tell us what Joseph Lieberman’s stance is of — what does he think of the movie industry’s response to Washington’s criticism?

DAN GERSTEIN: Well, Senator Lieberman said yesterday that he thought that this was a good first step, and he praised the industry for at least acknowledging that there’s a problem here, that the FTC documented, that they have some responsibility to parents to fix it. And they came forward with some tangible steps to limit the marketing to — of adult-rated, violent products to children, and also to — and this is really a key point — to provide more information to parents about the content of the movies that they’re producing, because that’s been a longtime criticism of the MPAA rating system is that there’s an age-based determination, in this case R, but it’s not identified what the content is, what’s the reason for the rating. And they pledged in the future to provide that information. However, a major flaw — and the fatal flaw — in the program they’ve put forward was that they did not explicitly say they will have a prohibition against the marketing of adult-rated violent products to children and that they won’t enforce it. And that is what the FTC recommended, and that’s what Vice President Gore and Senator Lieberman said had to be the bottom line here.

AMY GOODMAN: Henry Jenkins is also with us, director of Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After the Littleton shootings, you were called to Washington to testify before a similar committee and hearing like we’ve had in the last weeks. What is your response to the spokesperson for Senator Lieberman?

Are you with us? Professor Jenkins?

We’ll go to him in a second. Well, let’s get our third guest on the line with us, Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies and director of Project on Media Ownership at New York University. You take a slightly different tack in looking at the industry and the corporate power behind it.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Yeah, I’d say so. I think, actually, it’s beside the point to treat this whole controversy in terms of culture war. It’s tempting to do so, but it’s really too easy. I mean, we can look at it in melodramatic terms and say that Hollywood is being either oppressed or reined in by a bunch of oppressive or righteous politicians. It seems to me that it’s not only reasonable, but necessary, to take steps to protect children from inappropriate programming. And that’s not an elitist move. Anyone with kids knows that it’s a real struggle to have to keep your children from being exposed to images that are just simply traumatic for them. And this is why a good many enlightened democracies have strict policies against marketing anything to children. The Swedes, for example, just forbid it. It’s illegal to market to children, which, if you think about, is only sane and just, because kids are kids, and they can’t make the kinds of sophisticated distinctions between truth and lie or between one kind of fiction and another, that adults presumably can make.

I think that the problem here is that the media industries are far too large and powerful, on the one hand, and heavily indebted, on the other — indebted and therefore desperate for whatever revenues they can scare up. This is why they’ve been going around not so secretly marketing to kids; they need those viewers. They need those little kids in the theaters, the way the tobacco companies used to need kids smoking, and still do in many parts of the world. So, while I applaud the efforts of the Vice President and Senator Lieberman to hold Hollywood accountable to its own rules when it comes to marketing stuff to kids — I think they should cut that out — I also am pretty skeptical about the possibilities of either of these political parties really doing what needs to be done, which is an actual movement of media reform, to make the media both more competitive, more diverse and, you know, capable of providing genuinely different kinds of content to genuinely different audiences. In other words, we will always have stuff such as they’re attacking in Hollywood these days. That will always be with us. You can’t do away with it, and you shouldn’t try.

AMY GOODMAN: But specifically, what are you proposing?

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: I’m proposing vigorous anti-trust measures. I’m proposing that we vastly enlarge and enrich the public media sector. Right now we have public broadcasting of public TV and radio. They’re national; they’re not local. Countries like Australia, you know, have a state-subsidized film industry. I know it sounds insane inside the United States, but those are the — that’s the industry that gave us truly innovative and fascinating films like Babe and Splash, which then the Hollywood system struggled desperately to imitate. The fact is that if you’re ruled only and always by bottom line considerations, and always and only going after the largest audience, you’re going to go for the lowest common denominator. What we need to do is make our media, across the board, actually more productive, more diverse, less timid, less market-driven, and therefore less, you know, less lubricious and less violent.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Professor Jenkins back into the conversation from MIT. You testified after the Littleton, Colorado, hearings. You were not sharing the views of most who testified then.

HENRY JENKINS: Yeah, I think that’s a fair statement. I share most of what I just heard. That is, I think the goal should be broadening diversity, not regulating the content that’s currently available. And I would support restrictions on advertising for children.

But I’m troubled by the introduction of this culture war vocabulary into our discussion of popular culture. I’m troubled, for example, when I hear Senator Lieberman using phrases like "cultural pollution" or "filth," because those words have a history. And they first surfaced in relation to movies at the turn of the century, at a point in which the WASP society was using them to segregate out Jews and Italians, who were among the first producers of films and the first exhibitors of films, that those words originated in the context of a kind of nativist argument about who had the right to contribute to our culture. I’m concerned about the use of a phrase like "lowest common denominator" in a discussion of democracy. When we have someone like Orrin Hatch stand up at one of the hearings and say that Marilyn Manson’s music is offensive to everyone in America who thinks, what is he saying about the many, many young people in America who do not find this music offensive, who feel that it says something important about contemporary culture? If popular culture appeals to the lowest common denominator, then what does that say about democracy? Democracy shouldn’t be founded on the assumption that people are stupid, have bad taste, and are easily swayed by cultural materials. We have to assume, to have a functional democracy, that people have the ability to wade through the good and the bad and make their own decision. And what we’re hearing out of Washington has been a series of ideological distinctions between good and bad violence, between Clear and Present Danger and The Basketball Diaries, between The Patriot and Scream, that I think reflect the values of a particular segment of the population that are being promoted as if they were commonsensical and as if this was simply a battle between Hollywood and America rather than between different segments of the American culture who are struggling to express alternative values.

AMY GOODMAN: Spokesperson for Joseph Lieberman, Dan Gerstein, your response?

DAN GERSTEIN: Well, first of all, I want to say upfront that we are big fans of Professor Miller’s work. He’s done more than anyone, really, to kind of educate people about the implications of the concentration of power within the media and how that affects the products that flow into our culture. And one of the implications of that is a real lack of accountability, and we’re seeing that in some of these hearings in Washington about the marketing strategies. Some of the CEOs and some of the top studio officials are saying that they had no idea that this was going on. And I think that’s, you know, one of the things that we can do through this process, you know, with respect to the First Amendment — without regulating content, because no one is, that I know of is, actually proposing that — but is to raise awareness about, well, this is the culture, this is the media structure we have right now, and what happens when there is accumulation of power, and in very few hands, there is a lack of accountability, in large part because people don’t know what — these companies are so big, people at the top don’t know what the people at the bottom are doing.

But getting to Professor Jenkins’s point, I understand what he’s saying, but, you know, this is something where it comes — first of all, we’re talking right now about the marketing, and I’m glad to hear him say that, you know, there should be some accountability for marketing practices that target kids. But, you know, this — I hate the vocabulary of the culture war, too, because we’re not attacking Hollywood. Senator Lieberman is a big fan of the entertainment industry. He’s a big fan of movies, a big fan of television. His concern, though, is that so much of what’s getting produced so glorifies violence and sends the worst message to kids. And what Professor Jenkins is talking about is exactly right. When it comes to adults, they should have the right to distinguish between, you know, high culture, low culture and good violence and bad violence, and, you know, the First Amendment protects that right, but when it comes to kids, they’re not little adults. They do not have the mental faculties always to make those distinctions, and we have to kind of have a special consideration for the fact that they are often vulnerable to the kind of violence and sexual messages that too often is flowing through our culture. And that’s what we’re trying to have a discussion about, is: can we find a way to respect the First Amendment while also being more responsibility in the kind of culture we immerse our kids in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go back to the first point you were raising with Professor Miller, about the large corporations that run Hollywood. There was joking last week about Lieberman and Gore coming out hard and heavy against Hollywood and then going to a campaign fundraiser and softening their stance as they filled their coffers. You, Professor Miller, have come out with some very important graphs, charts, that show the entertainment-industrial complex.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Yeah, the Project on Media Ownership, which I direct at NYU, set up with the purpose of acquainting the public with the facts about who owns what, and also with, you know, providing arguments or explanations as to why this kind of concentration is undemocratic and destructive. I want to say that I’m thrilled to the depths of my soul that the Gore/Lieberman people think that my work is so important. And if they really want to have an open discussion of this whole problem, I’m available. You know, I can take the Amtrak down anytime. The fact is that —

DAN GERSTEIN: You’ll have that offer, Professor Miller.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Alright, I’ll hold you to that. But the fact is that there is a very close relationship, there is a correlation, between increasing concentration and conglomeratization of the media industries and the downward spiral of the quality of the content.

And having said that, I want to address Professor Jenkins’s point. He’s absolutely right when he says that these — this kind of rabid discourse has a long and really ugly pedigree. When you talk about things like filth and pollution, you’re basically using the language of the Nazis and the Stalinists. You know, it’s a kind of insane, puritanical opprobrium, you know, whose purpose is really to vilify groups of people. Now, the right wing in this country, people like Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, invariably invoke the names only of the Jewish CEOs when they attack Hollywood, which is a good one, because one of the most important players in this universe is Rupert Murdoch. And interestingly enough, Rupert Murdoch is now supporting Gore, from what I read. The Staples Center, which is 40 percent owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, was donated to the Democrats, and Rupert has otherwise made clear to Gore that he supports him, as he has supported Tony Blair in the past and as he has supported Australia’s Labor government.

Now one other point, Amy. You know, it’s all very well to claim that moralistic language used to condemn some of the crappier aspects of mass culture — and in that I would include the network news on TV — it’s all very well to condemn that, but I think we have to avoid idealizing a lot of this stuff. As Professor Jenkins was talking, I couldn’t help but think of how Rupert Murdoch would be responding to what he was saying, because Rupert Murdoch is indeed extremely cynical. Rupert Murdoch has indeed, and demonstrably, lowered the quality of newspapers all over the world. There is such a thing as a high journalistic standard. The fact is that mass audiences have in the past been treated with tremendous respect, you know. Throughout the 19th century, you know, there were productions of operas and Shakespeare directed only for working-class audiences. The great paperback revolution in this country was meant to make good books available to most people who couldn’t afford it. So I think that, you know, simply to assume that the randiest stuff or the most violent stuff is what the masses want and deserve to have is itself elitist.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Gerstein?

DAN GERSTEIN: I couldn’t agree more. And it’s sort of insulting to the general public to think that, you know, all they want is sex and violence. And, you know, I think the best evidence to prove Professor Miller’s point is that in the 1950s, when you had a limited television network universe — and granted, there were not as many outlets as there are today — but people were not rising up in the streets and clamoring for feel-good killings and, you know, recreational sex depictions. They were quite satisfied with Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows and high-quality television. And it wasn’t until there was a lowering of standards by the producers that fed a taste for some of the more troubling material that’s out there. And when Professor Jenkins starts saying that Marylin Manson is somehow a valid artist, when you hear about what he says and how —- you know, you talk about cynical -—

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Alright, let me — Dan, let me jump in here.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: In Professor Jenkins’s defense, we can’t really operate by deciding ourselves what stuff’s good and what stuff’s bad. We simply have to take the system away —

AMY GOODMAN: We have to cut off the debate here, but I want to ask if you can all join us again tomorrow for the second part of this discussion, because it is too important and a major issue of our time. Dan Gerstein, spokesperson for Senator Lieberman; and Mark Crispin Miller, professor at NYU; Henry Jenkins, director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.

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