Capital Letters: Kids' Beat

In which our man in Washington explores the constitutional status of video games, hears the declinist take on kids, and watches John McCain wow Yalies.

Date: Thurs, November 11, 1999 1:38:00 PM
Subj: Video Target

"I will know we have arrived when we get mentioned in your column," Rick Kaplar of the Media Institute said as I approached the registration table for lunch at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. The Media Institute concerns itself with the First Amendment and communications policy. One way it expresses its concern is by hosting a luncheon series, sponsored by such companies as America Online, CBS, Time Warner, and EchoStar Communications. Coincidentally, the executives of some of these very companies address the issues after a half an hour of wine and a hearty lunch.

Yesterday's featured speaker heads the trade group that represents manufacturers of video games--you know, those violent death simulators that turn your kids into killers. They've come under considerable scrutiny of late, as their products obviously poison souls and minds as surely as tobacco poisons lungs and hearts. This summer, President Clinton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the industry's marketing practices, giving the ever-eager bureaucrats at the FTC full subpoena powers.

I sat down at a table back and center, joining a friendly assortment of the regulators, the regulated, and the trade press reporters who cover them. My table mate from the FTC has been working for the commission for 28 years and recently spent time scrutinizing the dietary supplement industry. He has now turned his attention to video games.

I asked him about a report that the FTC was having trouble finding staffers skilled enough to advance to the higher levels of the games they were supposed to be investigating. "Are you going to hire kids?" I asked, suggesting that such employees might put the agency in an ethical bind. If horrible violence, blood, guts, and perhaps a bit of animated cleavage spring forth at the games' higher levels, then the government would be responsible for corrupting kids. He assured me that the agency had younger adult staffers on the video teams, who I gather are skilled virtual killers.

Dessert arrived, and it was time for the keynote speech by Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, a job he assumed after having been a reporter for nine years and serving as legislative director to former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio).

Lowenstein had grave news for us. The media, with their penchant for sensationalism, shoddy sourcing, and desire for villains, are undermining the constitutional freedoms on which his industry depends. In the wake of Columbine, the companies who pay his hefty salary have found themselves under relentless and baseless attack. On show after show, Lowenstein said, a self-styled expert without a Ph.D. who founded something as ridiculous as the "Killology Institute" held forth on the dangers of video games. Interviewers treated his words as though they were revealed truth, even though he's never been published in peer-reviewed journals. Politicians introduced bills that would have (gasp!) heaped federal regulation on the video game industry--which obviously is just the sort of free speech our founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. The public's been no help: "Alarmingly," Lowenstein said, "people seem willing to accept constitutional restrictions on the entertainment industry." Imagine! Next they won't be upset when the government tells them they can't smoke in buildings they own.

As Lowenstein rolled through his unabashedly self-serving speech--can you believe that his industry has been compared to the purveyors of cigarettes, instead of the sellers of books, who have constitutional rights?--I kept thinking: Welcome to the club. I waited for him to offer sympathy to the makers of such products as firearms, cigarettes, and automobiles, whose industries are bossed around by federal bureaucrats in nearly every aspect of their operations. He didn't. I wanted him to confess to similar abuses as a "powerful" Hill staffer. He didn't. He was totally focused on the that injustice he's experiencing. Poor baby.

I approached Lowenstein after the speech. First question: How are you different from the gun industry, which, after all, came under attack at the same time by the same forces? His answer: Everyone "from Bob Barr to Barney Frank" agrees that the entertainment industry enjoys First Amendment protections. Said Lowenstein, "That's not the same, clear-cut distinction you can make on guns." After these folks are done with you, I retorted, I'll be able to find scholars who will say you don't have constitutional protections.

The problem, Lowenstein argued, is that "a constitutionally protected industry like ours is put at risk--those protections are put at risk--by an industry [the news media] that itself enjoys those constitutional protections." He then went off record, feeling the urge to say something actually interesting. But I can't tell you about that.

Date: Tues, November 30, 1999 1:02:30 PM
Subj: Threats to Sanity

The sign at the door said, "Ten Critical Threats to America's Childrens" (sic): I would spend the next 45 minutes at the National Press Club listening to the ramblings of third-tier cheerleaders for more government spending.

Arnold Tanis, a pediatrician, had the most to say. He stood at the podium, his shoes collapsing on their inner heels, as he read haltingly from his prepared text. He fretted about parental responsibility: "No one wants to accept responsibility in this country."

He stressed the importance of teaching self-esteem. In the same voice I imagine he uses to calm the fears of his 2-year-old patients, he said every child, no matter how bereft of talent, has a reason to feel proud. "Look, you put on both shoes of the same color," he offered as a way adults could make a child feel good. For mothers, he noted, breast-feeding can be a source of pride. He ended his remarks by telling us we should heed the words of great Indian chiefs, including Chief Seattle, who is famous for something he never said. In the question period, Tanis said we should give children the vote.

It was so painfully obvious that the five speakers had no news to offer that by the time they shut up and opened the floor to questions they were met with skepticism that bordered on hostility. One guy challenged the claim that it's a dire sign that one in two children has access to guns. The questioner said he grew up with access to guns, used for killing deer, and that this posed not the slightest threat to the larger society.

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