You might think that Hollywood bigwigs would be mighty upset with Al Gore, given the fellow's censorious wife and his vice-presidential pick. Tipper Gore gained fame in the late '80s when she appeared before her husband's colleagues to demand "voluntary" labeling of music featuring "explicit lyrics." (No one was ever quite able to figure out why Mrs. Gore was petitioning the government, as opposed to music moguls, if she was in favor of voluntary labels.)
Joe Lieberman is a balls-out culture warrior. If the entertainment industry "continues to market death and degradation to our children," the senator has said, "one way or another government will act." In a recently post to the Democratic Leadership Council's web site Lieberman gave out the Federal Communication Commission's phone number and urged Americans to call and complain about programming. He teams up annually with Republican activist Bill Bennett to bestow "Silver Sewer" awards to media moguls responsible for "polluting" the culture. [http://www.suck.com/daily/99/09/28/]
So you might think that the combination of Tipper and Lieberman would be enough to send celebs scurrying out of the Democratic Party.
You'd be wrong. Democrats can't go wrong in this town, a fact that became obvious during a Wednesday afternoon panel on "Youth Violence and the Entertainment Industry." The panel, held at the Los Angeles Public Library, was sponsored by the Creative Coalition, an industry group made up of mostly B-level stars (Billy Baldwin is its head honcho) and hollywoodstockexchange.com, a media Web site. On hand to discuss the connection between media and violence were talk show host Montel Williams, director/producer/ actor Sydney Pollack, CBS network chief Les Moonves, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey (the man who gave the V-Chip its name), and actress Juliette Lewis (one of the stars of the infamous Natural Born Killers). Bill Bennett filled in for Lieberman, who bagged out by claiming that he was putting the finishing touches on his speech. Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame moderated the panel.
Bennett, who went first, informed us he was speaking for Joe Lieberman. Bennett didn't want to put words in the vice-presidential hopeful's mouth, so he quoted him directly, reading from a 1995 Lieberman press release: "The people I talk to in Connecticut are part of a revolution that is beginning throughout the country, a movement that might be called the revolt of the revolted. A growing number of Americans are sickened by the morass of sex, vulgarity and violence that increasingly dominates our electronic media and they are disgusted by what they see as the entertainment industry's abandonment of basic standards of decency for anything goes. The result is an increasingly debased culture that rejects rather than reflects the values that most Americans share."
There were no howls. The panel proceeded with the standard arguments now familiar to anyone who pays attention.
Bennett fretted about "moral ecology" and a coarsening of our culture, saying that critics such as himself have First Amendment rights too.
Combining an ignorance of Montel Williams' personal life with an ignorance of economics, Carl Bernstein asked Williams about the use of "shame" for isolating trash entertainment. Bernstein, the basis for the cheating, despicable husband in the roman a clef (and later movie) Heartburn, suggested that everyone could be a porn producer and be "unbelievably rich," but that people are shamed into not going into that profession.
"With the information superhighway, you can isolate the production all you want but it will be in everybody's living room whenever they choose to have it there," said Williams, the proud father of four children. "Why do we have to worry about what's in the television when the television has an on-off button?" asked Williams.
Sydney Pollack, the Oscar-winning director of hits like Tootise and bombs like Havanna, pointed out that we love to celebrate the common man but that we don't like his taste. "It's naïve to assume that in a free market economy," Pollack said, "that an appetite won't get filled." He also sensibly pointed out that there is no longer a moral consensus in society, that pornography in Salt Lake City is Art in New York City, and therefore it's difficult to think of standards in a meaningful way. If we all agreed something was over the line, then it wouldn't exist.
CBS' Moonves disagreed that the bar has been lowered, arguing instead that the market has simply expanded. "We're no longer living in a universe of four channels, six movie distributors, and five or six record companies," he said, explaining that the term Hollywood implies too much central control. "We are living in a world of 500 channels, and there are voids that our society wants that are filled." People can still get family programming, noted Moonves, but they can also get nature programming, and they can get violent and sexual programming as well.
Juliette Lewis offered the most unique, and baffling, perspective. She said it's psychiatric drugs that are causing the problems. "I have a list of 20 violent crimes committed by young people," she said, sounding a little too much like Sen. Joe McCarthy for her own good. "And what they all have in common is that the kids were on antidepressants or stimulants that have known side effects, including producing manic episodes, aggressive behaviors, psychotic outbursts." She also stuck up for teenagers, telling the audience, "I think people don't know how sophisticated and beautiful young people are."
In any case, the debate over government censorship is simply academic. No one here is actually worried about censorship. As Pollack told me in a post-panel interview, the government constantly says, "If you don't clean up your act, we'll clean it up for you. That's just not going to happen," he said. "It's not going to happen because nobody's going to let it happen." Indeed, even Bennett says shame, not government, is the answer to cultural "pollution" (at one point, he channeled Lieberman and said, "We need a good case of Jewish guilt").
Given that censorship is not considered a threat, Hollywood is free to support Democrats, with whom they agree on most other issues. Indeed, Hollywood seems eager to give the Dems a pass on the issue: Let a Gore administration howl about it all it wants (just as the Clinton administration has done in a number of special White House conferences), especially if it makes them popular among the rubes in flyover country. The key, goes this line of thought, is to get the Democrats in office so they can push the issues that really matter.
So what are the issues that move the stars? Daniel Stern, of Home Alone and City Slickers fame supports Gore and Lieberman because he wants the government to educate kids on how to consume Hollywood's product. That's an official Creative Coalition line. "The answer is putting money into teachers, teaching the teachers how to teach the kids to be literate," he said. "We should teach them how to be literate in television and advertising as well." As for censorship, Stern frets a bit about it but says, "it's never going to happen."
Montel Williams, a Republican turned independent, isn't committed to any candidate. He's not worried about government interference in his industry. His concerns include his parents' Medicare and Social Security. "What's going to happen when my mother gets sick and my father passes away?" said Williams, a multi-millionaire. "What's going to happen to my mom, who's paid into Social Security her entire life?" Added Williams, "I want to know what we are going to do about real issues, not the garbage these guys are posturing about in a popularity contest."
Juliette Lewis wouldn't say who she's supporting for president. She did let on that she agrees with each party on different issues. She wants funding for art and extracurricular activities in schools. "I'm not worried about [censorship] because it will never happen," she says. "It's just impossible in this day in age, I would think."
Rock star and multiple-liver recipient David Crosby was milling about the reception. He's supporting the Gore-Lieberman ticket. "I don't want to have to move to Canada if Bush becomes president," he said by way of explanation.