Oscar winner takes aim at issues with wit

In a keynote speech laced with wry irony and winking sarcasm, Tim Robbins managed to slap back at his right-wing critics, recount an entertaining history of radio and TV and urge broadcasters to “appeal to our better natures,” saying news directors and producers have a responsibility to “the health of the nation.”

Robbins also denounced television’s “pornographic obsession with celebrity culture” and warned that meaningful civil discourse is being threatened by it.

Instead of the soothing and rallying bromides that fill most keynotes, Robbins’ speech alternated between dire warning and stern plea.

Addressing the kickoff of the National Assn. of Broadcasters confab in Las Vegas, Robbins at first hesitated over whether to deliver the speech he had prepared, thinking he might serve the audience better by submitting to a Q&A session with a moderator.

But after some back and forth with the audience, which encouraged him to go with the speech, Robbins obliged. He launched into an apology to conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly “and Laura whatshername,” noting that all had labeled him traitorous or unpatriotic for having called for more time to be given to U.N. weapons inspectors before deploying military force against Iraq.

“They said I was a dupe of left-wing appeasement … and how right they were,” Robbins quipped. “Had I known then of all the smiling faces” that now populate Iraq, “the wildfire of democracy that is spreading throughout the Middle East,” he would have not spoken as he did, he said.

He added that he can see now that his words were indeed “traitorous, unfounded and irresponsible, so I apologize to the talkradio geniuses.”

Robbins noted his debt to broadcasting, which gave him a start in showbiz, and, to remind listeners of major historical milestones that have involved radio and TV, he took them on a slyly funny tour through broadcasting’s back pages.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was known for “fireside chats,” a part of radio history that opened the doors, Robbins said, to other presidents addressing the nation in a similar manner, such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Bull Sessions” and George W. Bush’s “Hooked on Phonics and Strategery.”

The fun started to get uncomfortable when Robbins referred to both the Reagan and Clinton administrations having eased limitations on media ownership — all to the “benefit” of communities, which then no longer had to listen to diverse, complex opinions “or alternative rock.” NAB has supported relaxing ownership rules.

Robbins peaked with what he called a three-pronged proposal that broadcasters should adopt in order to eliminate “confusing, complex issues” such as diversity of thought and opinion.

“First, erase all diversity,” he said. “You only need two opinions. Second, stay focused on sex scandals. We don’t want any kind of reporting outside the soundbite. I don’t know about you, but show me a drunk starlet getting out of a car with no panties on, and I think the world is a better place. Third, more distraction. The economy sucks? Chaos in Iraq? It is a moral responsibility to distract.”

Robbins stepped on sensitive ground when noting that “just when we were getting close to a national music playlist, along comes satellite radio that actually plays music people want to hear.” NAB battled to stop the proposed XM and Sirius merger, which the Justice Dept. recently approved. Despite NAB’s ongoing, bitter protests, the Federal Communications Commission is likely to approve the merger, too.

“In all seriousness, folks,” Robbins said, dropping the good-natured satirical tone, “We’re at an abyss as an industry and a country.” He talked of pervasive cynicism in the country and added that “you, as broadcasters, have the power to turn the nation away from cynicism. Or you can hide behind the old adage, ‘I’m just a businessman, just providing what the audience wants.’ ”

Robbins urged the mass of broadcasters to join the relatively few, he said, that are trying to steer away from mindless sensationalism to “appeal to our better nature.”

Who knows, he said — there might even be money in that. The audience laughed.

“Now is the time to recognize that you are not just businessmen but guardians of the human spirit with a responsibility to the health of the nation.” Otherwise, Robbins warned, “The road we’re on is a corruption of our former selves.”

About two-thirds of the packed ballroom rose to a standing ovation.

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