WASHINGTON — Spurred by the recent killings at a Colorado high school, the government is threatening to go after the movie, music and videogame industry in the same way it has the tobacco giants.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch said Tuesday he may request federal regulators to subpoena marketing documents from studios, record companies and videogame producers, in an effort to find evidence that they are purposefully using violence to attract youth audiences.
“I have recently considered asking the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Justice to investigate the marketing practices of the videogame, music and movie industry,” said Hatch, (R-Utah) at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing titled “Marketing Violence to Children.”
Hatch compared his proposed inquiry to a similar investigation of the tobacco industry that found evidence, despite repeated denials, that cigarette companies were marketing to underage children.
Hatch was just one of many senators who used the hearing to lash out against the entertainment industry, after last month’s shooting of 13 people and suicide of two others at the Littleton, Colo., school. (The hearing was scheduled before the shootings at Columbine High School occurred.)
The proposed investigation could take a more defined shape as early as next week. Hatch said he might craft an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Bill, slated for debate on the Senate floor, that would require either the FTC or Justice to conduct the investigation.
The Juvenile Justice bill is expected to become a magnet for proposals to curb violence in the media, including a proposal by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) to ban violence on television during times when children are most likely in the audience. Hollings has failed to win support for the legislation in the past, but in the current congressional climate, its chances are much better.
Kids ‘R’ not us
At the same hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said that theater owners are doing a poor job of keeping younger teenagers out of R-rated movies. “We should also ask theater owners to uniformly enforce the R-rating prohibition for underage children.”
Unless movie theaters, video stores and record stores step up voluntary enforcement of their industries’ respective codes, Lieberman suggested Congress could make it a crime to sell a ticket for an “R” rated movie to a kid.
The political backlash in the wake of the Littleton shooting has been swift and formidable. In addition to the hearing Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will have another hearing on the impact of media violence on the nation’s children on May 13. And on May 10, the White House will hold a summit on youth violence that will include some entertainment industry representatives along with clergy and representatives on both sides of the gun control debate.
Study of violence
Also testifying at Tuesday’s hearing was Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti, who announced his support for a proposal that the U.S. surgeon general conduct a comprehensive study on violent behavior by children — a study that would include an examination of the potential impact of media violence on kids.
Valenti said the report, first proposed by Lieberman, would be useful to identify the real roots of the spate of violence that is now plaguing the nation’s teenagers. But until the results of the report are revealed, Valenti cautioned politicians against drawing pre-conceived conclusions about the impact of violent entertainment on the actions of the nation’s children.
Valenti’s support for a new surgeon general’s report was not immediately embraced by every entertainment industry lobbyist in town.
“I don’t think a surgeon general’s report or an FTC investigation will really get at the reasons these kids pulled out guns and bombs and tried to kill everyone in their school,” said Recording Industry Assn. of America prexy Hilary Rosen.
Rosen was invited to testify at the Senate hearing but refused to appear. Also turning down invites were execs from several major entertainment industry companies, including Time Warner, Sony, Seagram/Universal, Sony, BMG and Viacom.
Rosen said she turned down the invitation because she wanted to avoid “political theater” where music becomes a scapegoat for the violent and abhorrent behavior of children.
She also dismissed proposals that the FTC or Justice should investigate the marketing practices of the music industry. “I think it’s silly. The idea that the entertainment industry nefariously targets children is ridiculous,” Rosen said.
‘Moral shield’ needed
In defense of his industry, Valenti also said it is the responsibility of parents, schools and churches to build an “impenetrable moral shield” to protect children. Absent that “moral shield” Valenti said, “no abolition of constitutional rights, no executive order, no congressional law … will ever salvage a child’s conduct or locate a missing moral core.”
Moral shield or not, Valenti offered little in defense of a clip from Miramax’s “Scream” that culture warrior Bob Bennett presented as evidence at the hearing.
Bennett said the pic is an example of the kind of the hyper-violent product that is coarsening the minds and souls of the nation’s youth.
“This is brought to you by Walt Disney,” Bennett said, as a bloody slasher sequence from “Scream” began to unspool on two video screens in the crowded Commerce Committee hearing room. The clip, which lasted more than a minute, included the vicious knifing of a baby-sitter, played by Drew Barrymore.
Asked for his verdict on the sequence, Valenti would say only that there are more than 550 movies made each year in Hollywood, and there are some that he is “not willing to defend.”
Also testifying at the hearing was Catholic archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput, who presided over the funeral of one of the victims of the Columbine High School shootings. Chaput testified that art, in all its forms, “shapes the soul.”
“The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up — or drags us down,” Chaput said.
Later Valenti was asked directly by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) if bad art does indeed have a negative influence on the soul, as Chaput suggested. After trying to sidestep the question, Valenti finally replied after being pressed by Brownback: “I think bad art does savage the soul.”