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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.

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Date: Thurs, November 11, 1999 1:38:00 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
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
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
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.

Someone else questioned the complaint that one in five kids lives in a family receiving food stamps: Doesn't this show that we are already addressing the problem of hunger? Yet another fellow, obviously perturbed at having wasted his morning at this press conference, said that for almost every one of the 10 so-called threats, things are already getting better, not worse. He asked, reclining belligerently in his chair, if this didn't show that we are already on the right track.

In response, Tamara Lucas Copeland, president of the National Association of Child Advocates, allowed that there "were a number of positive [trends] that we didn't address." But, she added, "We can't let the positives overcrowd the negatives."

We certainly wouldn't want to do that.

Date: Thurs, December 9, 1999 6:28:43 AM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: McCain Stumps in Bush Country

The room was poised for a maverick attack: Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) was bringing his presidential campaign to Yale's Silliman College, one of the school's 12 residential colleges, where he was scheduled to appear at a Master's Tea, an intimate gathering of 350 or so Yalies. Entering the building, I passed four Bush enthusiasts holding signs that read, "Bulldogs for Bush" and "Yale is Bush Country." Forty minutes before showtime, a long line was forming. I queued up, before recalling that the press doesn't wait in lines. I was soon settling into a second-row center seat.

A guy sitting in the front row sporting a fresh buzz cut was attempting to impress his friends by echoing the Bush spin that only a governor from a state that borders Mexico has the leadership abilities it takes to be president. "There's a definite learning curve" that a senator would have to climb, said Buzz Cut, deepening his voice for earnestness and swishing his hand up an invisible curve for effect.

Another guy three seats down had a different take. Presumably speaking of McCain, he said, "He's conservative, but he's not an idiot like Bush."

We had time to kill, and Buzz Cut was soon glad-handing the room in his weenie uniform, a light blue button-down Oxford shirt and khaki pants. The event's organizer asked an Alabama girl if she'd like to escort McCain into the room. Buzz Cut, now back in his seat, asked, "Can I come along?" No response. Buzz Cut leaned forward and begged, "Can I come along?" The organizer consented, and Buzz Cut leapt up and led Yale's nod to geographical diversity from the room.

The place was packed. Students sat Indian-style up front and stood packed solid to the farthest corners of the room. McCain arrived late, having stopped to address the overflow crowd of another 250 or so Yalies, who were stuck out in the cold. The room erupted in claps as the silver-haired saint entered. Buzz Cut, who had inexplicably returned earlier without McCain, jumped up, slapping his hands together madly.

After a brief introduction, McNasty, as he was known in high school, took the microphone and promised to keep his remarks short. There was a charge in the room, not unlike the vibe one feels when Clinton's around. I can't imagine that the majority of these folks are McCain boosters, or even Republicans, but it didn't take long for McCain to have them in his clutch.

He opened with his standard series of self-deprecating but deftly delivered, jokes. He told the one about how all senators, unless in detox or under indictment, consider themselves presidential candidates (a joke he should drop now that he has officially announced his candidacy). He informed the crowd that Arizona, which has produced Barry Goldwater, Morris Udall, and Bruce Babbitt, is the only state where mothers tell their kids they can't grow up to be president. He recalled the time when Jay Leno called his daughter just moments before McCain's appearance on the Tonight Show, and she accused Jay of being her pop pulling a prank. None of the jokes was new to me. Each was new to the crowd, and each earned laughs.

McCain customized his remarks for the younger crowd, claiming he was the only presidential candidate who attended the MTV Awards and therefore knew who Puff Daddy was. McCain has a standard line, one that serves to lighten things up while reminding an audience of his five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam: "[Fill in the blank]," the modest senator will say, "was the worst experience [or the most fun] I've had since Vietnam." Today McCain said listening to Nine Inch Nails was the worst assault on his senses since he'd been a POW. The students filled the room with claps and laughs.

McCain then launched into the college version of his stump speech. He told us he was running for president to restore faith in government for us young people. He admitted he gets angry, and he promised to have a temper tantrum for us, because Congress engages in pork-barrel spending, members of the military are on food stamps, and the tax code is too long. I was getting pissed just listening to him. Then he made it personal. "What am I worried about?" he asked, but a short walk from the classrooms where anti-ironist Jedediah Purdy earnestly studies law. "I'm worried that young people are cynical."

It was quite a performance, and thankfully one that lasted less than 10 minutes. Buzz Cut must have clapped a layer of skin off his hands and laughed himself hoarse. McCain opened the floor for questions. The first, a real zinger, was why he considered himself a proud, conservative Republican. He responded that he believes in lower taxes, less government, free trade, a strong national defense, and a minimal role for government in the lives of citizens, among other things I couldn't get down. He was asked a couple of campaign finance questions. Some liberals questioned him on gun control and welfare reform. A blond girl from Scottsdale, Arizona, wanted to him to detail his stance on ballistic missile defense. A guy in a U.S. Marine Corps' windbreaker asked him his views on the military. A woman with a large wooden crucifix hanging on a necklace asked him what he learned as a POW.

Yale's entire student body is composed of kids who sat in the front row in high school and excelled at asking questions, so the hands kept going up. Another blond girl asked McCain to describe the biggest challenge he faces on the road to the White House. "The $2 to $3 million Bush is raising while we have this meeting," he responded. He then quoted Mao, another McCain standard: "It's always darkest before it goes completely black." The master of Silliman College presented him with Dean Acheson's biography and a Yale shirt. Buzz Cut jumped up, disposable Kodak camera in hand, to get his picture taken with McCain. It didn't happen.

"He's awesome," I heard a student say as I left the room. Another piped up, "If I vote for a Republican, I will vote for him."

Buzz Cut was hanging around, still hoping to get a bit closer to the senator. I approached him for comment. "Funny, dynamic, spoke to kids well," Buzz Cut opined. "He comes off as being a man of morals, a real patriot." Buzz Cut's voting for Bush, however. Says he likes George W.'s defense and education policies better. Go figure.