They came, they caved

If Hollywood's heads won't stick up for our rights, I will. So why won't Joe Lieberman agree to meet with me?


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Joe Eszterhas
September 15, 2000 2:40AM (UTC)

There they were, the famed heads of Hollywood's studios, fighting the good fight, righteously trading volleys with Senators Lieberman, McCain and Hollings, eloquently defending the right of free artistic expression for the writers and directors who make the movies which fill the studios' coffers with gold. Eisner, Katzenberg, Calley, Lansing, Rothman heroically defending the first amendment against the latest assault.

Yeah, well, when pigs fly, dude.

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Eisner, Katzenberg, Calley, Lansing, Rothman and the others all had "scheduling conflicts" and couldn't be in Washington. They sent Jack Valenti, their surrogate mouth, to, as Variety wrote, "carry Hollywood's flag." Valenti did his tired verbal jig, but by the end of the day's hearing, in front of the Senate Commerce Committee, it was obvious that the flag Captain Jack was carrying was a white one. As McCain said, "I can only conclude the industry was too ashamed of or unable to defend their marketing practices."

Daryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn and Samuel Goldwyn must have been doing flip-flops in their well-tended graves. Theirindustry was being mugged ... and their successors not only didn't resist the mugging, but threw one painful punch at themselves: Disney announced that it wouldn't advertise R-rated movies in prime time.

While today's studio bosses were rolling over and hurling their legs into the air, only the New York Times condemned the mugging. "Advocating new legal restrictions on commercial speech," the Times wrote, "is a dangerous assault on civil liberties and the constitution." Gore and Joe Lieberman, the Times wrote, were "advocating what would amount to government censorship." Not advertising R-rated movies on television shows like "Friends" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that adults and children watched, the Times wrote, was a violation of the rights of those over 18.

Thanks to their "scheduling conflicts," no studio head made the Times' arguments. Thanks to their "scheduling conflicts," no studio head pointed out that the FTC report itself said "there is no evidence" linking violent or sexual actions in the popular culture with the violent actions of teenagers with guns. Thanks to their "scheduling conflicts," no studio head pointed out that Lieberman, by the FTC's own yardstick, was dead wrong when he said that the entertainment industry "is a toxic mix that turns some kids into killers."

It was a bad week for the advocates of free speech. When FTC commission chairman Robert Pitofsky called upon trade organization members to publicly reveal the names of those marketing executives selling R-rated movies to teenagers, some people were reminded of the old House Un-American Activities Committee days when writers and directors were told to "name names" of alleged Communists. And while Gore and Lieberman kept saying they were focused on "marketing and not content," Lynne Cheney, wife of the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, gave the game away when she told the commerce committee, "There is a problem with the product they market, no matter how they market it."

Threats of censorship filled the air as Gore and Lieberman (and Cheney) denied advocating censorship. Lieberman, echoing his May 4, 1999, speech of last year in which he said that unless the entertainment industry regulates itself, "then the government will act," called for new FTC regulations. Cheney went even further: "More and more good citizens find appealing the idea that government regulation should remove entertainment industry products from the public square." Speaking to shareholders of Seagram as she castigated Eminem, Cheney said, "Is it in their best interest for Seagram to pursue a course that may well lead to federal regulation?"

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It was blackmail, plain and simple, from both Lieberman and Cheney: Do what we want or we'll force you to do it (even though we don't believe in force).

I couldn't help thinking that if the same rhetoric were coming from the Reverends Robertson, Falwell and Wildmon, Hollywood would be staging protests on Rodeo Drive and Barbra Streisand would be leading them (wearing the same ditzy hat she wore in "The Way We Were"). Instead, Streisand was planning a benefit for Gore.

I spent much of the week publicly calling for a dialogue with Lieberman, asking him to engage in conversation not with the politically panicked studio heads but with people like me who write or direct movies with a violent and/or sexual content: With Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Andrew Kevin Walker, Oliver Stone, Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, Paul Verhoeven, Tony Scott and others. The frame of our dialogue would be "good citizenship" (as Gore puts it) vs. censorship.

We wouldn't have "scheduling conflicts" and we'd give Lieberman or McCain (and his committee) an argument.

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I haven't heard from Lieberman, of course, because I don't think he could defend his positions. I think he'd look great trading civilities and pumping his gravitas with corporate executives, but I think he'd fall apart in a room with those who are as zealot-like about their freedom of artistic expression as he is about his moralism and piety.

He's playing an old game which has been played for more than a hundred years. In the late 1800s, there was a crusade to convince the public that dime novels caused violence. In the 1950s, there were Senate hearings about the link between comic books and violence.

In 1959, in Germany, there was a great uproar about a man who went to see a movie which, he said, showed him that women were sluts. He raped and killed four women. The movie? One of Bill Clinton's favorites, "The Ten Commandments."

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When Arthur Bremer shot George Wallace ... when John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan ... when Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon ... when Robert Bardo shot the actress Rebecca Schaeffer ... they all carried the same paperback in their pockets when they were arrested: J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."

Thousands of killers through the years have said they committed their crime because "God told me to do it."

Do we ban "The Ten Commandments"? "The Catcher in the Rye"? the Bible?

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Do we set up a post-Columbine-like commission to study the effect of the Bible on young minds? Do we bemoan that the New Testament -- "Jesus is love" -- is deceptive advertising for all the bloodshed and savagery in the Old Testament? Do we conclude that the Old Testament "mainlines murder, mayhem and violence" the way Lieberman says the entertainment industry does?

I would like to hear Lieberman's answers to these questions but I don't think I will. During the Democratic Convention, he ducked out of a scheduled Creative Coalition panel at the last moment. The subject was "Hollywood and Youth Violence." A spokesman for Lieberman said the senator had a "scheduling conflict."


Joe Eszterhas

Joe Eszterhas is an ex-Rolling Stone reporter, National Book Award nominee for "Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse," and screenwriter of such blockbusters as "Basic Instinct" and" Jagged Edge." His latest book "American Rhapsody" was published by Knopf in July.

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