<b>Brian Lowry: Tuning In</b>
THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION, Democrats and Republicans have assessed the state of TV and found something, finally, upon which they can mutually agree: Televised violence is bad, and children must be saved from its pernicious influence.
If Hollywood could ever use Jack Valenti, it’s at this moment; the bat signal would be beaming into the sky right about now.
Unfortunately, Valenti can’t answer this latest summons. He died last week at age 85, though anybody who ever heard him speak doubtless envisions him at the Pearly Gates, regaling St. Peter with stories about Lyndon Johnson and Texas homilies like “That dog won’t hunt.”
Valenti swung by the Los Angeles Times a few years ago to meet with the editorial board — OK, actually to thunder magnificently at the editorial board and deftly sidestep whatever editors and reporters tried to ask him. Despite being nearly 80, he stood and fielded questions for 90 minutes and clearly couldn’t have been knocked off message or forced to deviate one iota from the approved script if hit with a battering ram.
That colorful persona and oratorical flare served him well, especially during those times when the major parties periodically rediscover media content’s value as an overstuffed punching bag. Like a savvy prizefighter, Valenti would instantly go into his rope-a-dope routine — sounding properly abhorrent of wanton violence in entertainment, responsive without really being so, humble yet never apologetic.
THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION recently weighed in by labeling the current debate “political pandering,” but of course, that’s no way to disarm a politician in the throes of a good pander — such as Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, who recently proclaimed levels of TV violence an “epidemic.” As for the old “The Three Stooges don’t kill people, people (usually holding guns) kill people,” politically, that argument’s a nonstarter.
Throwing in with the GOP’s values wing for once instead of the pro-business side, FCC chairman Kevin Martin has joined the chorus, advocating a la carte cable as one soundbite-friendly solution. With an election not far off, to quote one memorable actor-turned-politician, there they go again.
Ever the politician himself, Valenti was always too shrewd to state the obvious — that Congress and the FCC aren’t really committed to protecting children from television but rather want TV execs to help provide them with political cover by shielding kids from absentee, disengaged or unthinking parents. Nor would he be so rude as to point out that parents with young children represent a decided minority of U.S. homes and are thus a questionable barometer for setting communications policy — especially regarding something as arbitrary as what constitutes excessive violence, sexuality or language.
Instead, Valenti championed the MPAA film ratings and later TV content guidelines he devised to help shelter his industry from those who would shackle or censor it, time and again outlasting the scolds — allowing them to throw up their arms in a public declaration of victory without achieving any real or enduring change.
That’s where this latest pugilistic exchange over TV content is inevitably heading as well, since nothing can squeeze the pop-culture genie back into its bottle for long. The fight won’t be nearly as artfully choreographed, however, without Valenti’s fancy footwork — ducking, weaving and finally taking a well-orchestrated dive, without ever truly letting the opposition lay a glove on him.
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THIS WEEK offers an intriguing litmus test of the public’s news appetite, bookended as it is by a “60 Minutes” interview with former CIA chief George Tenet and ABC’s much-ballyhooed exclusive with “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey on Friday.
Both are inside-the-Beltway stories, and each represents a form of pandering — in Tenet’s case, to push a book and justify a hefty advance.
Notably, Scott Pelley’s “60 Minutes” segment — which found Tenet defensive and blustery, a posture he slightly corrected in a subsequent “Today” appearance — generated blaring headlines but didn’t fare especially well in the ratings, raising the question of whether someone who assisted in the servicing of D.C. bigwigs is more of an attraction than someone who helped screw America’s foreign policy.
Adjusting for the time-period handicap, the smart money’s still on the madam.