Hollywood on trial

Joe Lieberman gets ready to testify in hearings about the evils of the entertainment industry -- and the Gore campaign can't wait.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

There's no question that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, long a critic of Hollywood violence, will testify before a senate Commerce committee hearing as soon as Sept. 13 about a Federal Trade Commission report that reportedly claims that film, record and video game producers are pushing their wares on children while pretending not to.

And while the move certainly runs the risk of enraging some of the Democrats' deep-pocketed Hollywood friends, a senior advisor to Gore claims the campaign not only will allow, but welcome Lieberman's position.

"I think he's brought to the ticket some real credibility on this issue," the senior advisor says. "And it's an issue that's real important to people, especially to families. And where you find this level of concern is with working families -- families where both parents are working, and the kids have a lot of time on their own where they're unsupervised. And that's where it really shows up in anecdotal evidence, focus groups and polls."

Thus, the Gore team is confident that Lieberman's testimony will only benefit the Democratic ticket. "If anything, it would raise questions if Lieberman didn't testify, since he's already taken unfair criticism that he's been abandoning his principles and his stance on this issue," says Dan Gerstein, Lieberman's Senate communications director.

"One way to clear up any doubts is to take a stand on this report, which he's been closely involved with," Gerstein says. The hearing has been tentatively slotted for Sept. 13.

After all, the FTC report only exists because, in a May 1999 amendment to the Juvenile Justice bill that passed 98-0, Lieberman joined with Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sam Brownback of Kansas to call for the FTC and Justice Department to study the issue of the entertainment industry marketing excessively violent content to minors. The next month, President Clinton ordered the investigation.

While the FTC's study has yet to be released, it reportedly reaches the conclusion that "movie studios, record companies and video game producers are aggressively marketing violent entertainment products to children even as they label the material inappropriate for young audiences," according to a report in Sunday's Washington Post.

Lieberman has long been an outspoken critic of the entertainment media, becoming a hero to conservatives and a scold to the Left Coast. In 1993, hearings he held through a governmental affairs subcommittee resulted in a video game ratings system. Offended by the raciness on TV (he once said "Friends" should be shown late at night, or even in theaters), he asked the Federal Communications Commission in May to make sure broadcasters were meeting the "public interest standard."

In 1995, he teamed up with values czar William Bennett to bash Time Warner for releasing CDs by "gangsta rap" artists Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice-T and Dr. Dre, and TV in general for running the Jerry Springers of the world. He also issued, along with Bennett, an annual "Silver Sewer Award" that went last year to Fox television for -- among other notorious bits -- a TV show that had a teenage girl commenting, "Hmm. Not bad," after checking out her stepbrother's package as he stepped out of the shower.

"People are concerned about this issue and he's going to be speaking to a broad range of the political spectrum who are looking to their leaders to give voice to their concerns," Gerstein says. "It's a classic example of good policy making good politics."

It might not seem that way to Democratic friends in Hollywood when the report is made public. According to a source familiar with the report, the hearing stands to make some pretty big waves, slamming the movie, music and videogame industries for purposely marketing inappropriate content to kids. "It's the categorical nature of the report that's impressive," the source says. "These marketing processes have been across the board, pervasive and intentional."

"The impact of the report will be a profound one for the industry," the source says.

In its yearlong study of the issue, the FTC initiated several undercover surveys of retailers, where underage children attempted to buy tickets to movies recommended for older audiences. Roughly 50 percent of the time, according to the source familiar with the FTC study, they were able to buy the tickets. Ratings systems for edgy music and violent interactive video games did almost nothing to prevent kids from purchasing the materials, according to the report.

Moreover, the FTC report claims that while ratings systems for these products are either unenforced half the time (in the case of film), or almost entirely unenforced (for music and video games), media companies market these same products to kids by targeting TV shows, Web sites and magazines. As a result, the report might change the issue from whether Hollywood is occasionally, gratuitously obscene, to whether, according to the source, the "industry been using its rating system in a very duplicitous way, as a cover to market the products to kids."

Ouch. Republicans throughout the Senate are wondering if what may turn into a particularly nasty and contentious issue will keep Lieberman from his off-year crusade. They wonder if Hollywood will lean on Gore to lean on Lieberman to back off.

After all, even before the FTC report, Variety magazine's editor in chief, Peter Bart, wrote a scathing column during the convention, addressed to the Democratic delegates, in which he noted that "much as your new leaders may disdain the entertainment industry, it's still a bountiful source of money, and its glitterati help jazz up a political dinner ... So in return you've given us Senator Joe, a man who ... viscerally distrusts the ability of citizens to determine their own sources of entertainment."

Additionally, Republicans can point out, Lieberman seems to be in the process of muting many of his more moderate stands -- like, say, school vouchers -- in order to be a team player with his arguably more liberal running mate. And just Sunday, Lieberman even embraced Bill Clinton, comparing him with Moses (a sharp contrast with the Lieberman who was the first senior-level Democrat to harshly condemn President Bill Clinton for his affair with a 21-year-old White House intern.)

But Gore's campaign maintains that Lieberman's testimony will be on message with everything Gore has already said. Gore spokesman Chris Lehane says that Gore himself has "been talking about it for a while, whether it's a ratings system for television, a 'one click' that allows parents to determine what kids see on the Internet, or calling on different entities in society to take responsibility for what they put on the airwaves. Al Gore has a tremendous record to give parents the tools to strengthen their families and protect their children."

Pundits and politicos (most recently Rep. Mark Sanford in Salon) have been commenting on Gore's need for his own Sister Souljah moment. The reference is to the 1992 harsh criticisms then-Gov. Bill Clinton voiced -- at an event with the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- about the outrageous, race-baiting words of rapper Sister Souljah. Through the criticism, Clinton may have risked alienating the Democratic base of African-American voters, but he shored up the support of swing, moderate (and white) voters by showing that he was not a prisoner of traditional liberal interests.

Besides, the thinking went, Clinton wasn't really risking that black voters would suddenly turn Republican. Similarly, Gore can probably count on Hollywood taking a few licks without necessarily running to the other party. Plus, Lieberman's presence at the hearing will put him in the same room with John McCain, the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, whose presidential candidacy attracted the very same independent and swing voters Gore needs to win.

The senior Gore advisor, however, insists that Sister Souljah is "too strong" an analogy. Gore phoned "a lot of the key people in Hollywood when he named Lieberman to the ticket. And the people in Hollywood appreciate that Lieberman is a straight talker."

Hollywood power players "know that there's going to be a national debate on this issue," whether they like it or not, the advisor says. Having Lieberman in this debate will be reassuring to the Hollywood community, he says, since he's "seen as an honest broker on these issues. He has a position, but he's not someone to exploit them for his own gain; he's not someone who demagogues the issue. Lieberman's always been reasonable."

That might be wishful thinking: The report could launch a Tinseltown version of the tobacco hearings; McCain's office is reportedly contemplating calling the CEOs from entertainment conglomerates like Time Warner, Sony, Viacom, News Corp., the Walt Disney Company and Seagram to testify.

"There've been years of denial of any link between their product and violence," Gerstein says. "This is the most glaring similarity [with big tobacco] beyond the marketing practices to children. There are some within the industry who, since Columbine, have been candid and said obviously this has some influence on kids. But for the most part they've denied it."

Will they be able to any longer? The FTC -- with what has been called "reluctant cooperation" from the entertainment industries -- studied data from the industries, background information from various interest groups and a study of marketing over the Internet. It conducted an undercover survey of retailers, and surveyed parents, kids and families on their buying habits and familiarity with the various rating systems for movies, music and video games.

Even worse, many of the entertainment conglomerates labeling their own products nonetheless market content to consumers that they themselves deem too young in their voluntary ratings systems. "Movies are consistently and aggressively targeted to inappropriate audiences," the source says of the FTC report's conclusions. "Video games take out ads in magazines that are predominantly targeted to kids. Music takes out print ads and across-the-board ad placement" targeted at too-young consumers.

Interestingly, one of the conclusions in the FTC report is the failure of the voluntary music labeling system partially initiated by Gore's wife, Tipper, during her 1985 involvement with the Parents Music Resource Center.

"That's obviously not a negative reflection of PMRC or Mrs. Gore in any way," Gerstein says. "At that time it was something versus nothing. It's just that it's been clear over time that 'something' hasn't worked very well. Though we never would have had even 'something' if it hadn't been for Mrs. Gore's principled advocacy."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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