CHICAGO — The war of words between Hollywood and Washington over responsibility for violence in society following the high school shootings in Littleton, Co., escalated Tuesday, as Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin and Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone lashed out at political leaders.
“The memory of the kids in Littleton is being irreverently provoked now in the political system, and we have obscene politics at work,” Levin said during a panel discussion at the National Cable Television Assn. annual convention.
“It’s hard for me to believe we have members of Congress who debase themselves through the political process,” Levin added, in a more strongly worded version of statements he has previously made.
An even angrier Redstone told the gathering that “the same motion pictures that are distributed in the U.S. are distributed in Canada and England, and the kids don’t kill each other as a result of seeing those movies.”
Redstone, a well known Democratic donor, added that politicians should focus on schools and parental responsibility to avert future violence.
Levin noted that politicians were trying to “draw attention from areas that we have been highlighting, like use of guns.”
The outburst from the two moguls came after CNN political commentator and panel moderator Jeff Greenfield questioned whether the entertainment companies have some level of social responsibility for what they air, adding that some of what appears on Viacom’s MTV is “gross.”
In response, Redstone noted that “sexuality doesn’t bother me, does it bother you? I don’t consider that gross. Violence is bad, sex is good.”
When Greenfield asked whether Redstone believed “14-year-old sex is good,” Levin jumped in and said Greenfield’s questions showed a “tremendous generation gap and assumed there is some cause and effect.”
The comments came just as the House of Representatives is expected to begin debating a controversial juvenile crime bill that includes curbs on violence in the entertainment industry.
Among other things, the bill proposes treating very violent material like sexually obscene material. The Supreme Court has ruled that sexually obscene material can be banned but has never extended the standard to violent material.
Levin said there was “a heightened sensitivity to violence” in the industry “but you have to distinguish between political games that are being played and the proper role of government.”
“What we are doing is inculcating what I will call a value system ,” to help employees decide whether programming or editorial content is “right.”
Redstone questioned who could decide what sort of violence was morally wrong, noting “how about violence in ‘Saving Private Ryan’? … who are the judges to be?”
Another panelist, Comcast Corp. president Brian Roberts, took a more moderate tone, conceding that he felt “uncomfortable” with some of the programming Comcast’s systems aired.
But he also noted that parents carried much of the responsibility for the programs their children watched.
The fourth panelist, software billionaire Paul Allen, who has recently become a major cabler, said, “Anytime you are involved in carrying any kind of content you have to think about cases where you might want to show restraint.”
(Christopher Stern contributed to this report.)