Civil Liberties

Jack Valenti, 1921-2007


Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti—confidant to LBJ, father of the MPAA rating system, scourge of the VCR, the man who once said "I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my president"—has died at age 85. I disagreed with him constantly, and when we did agree I rarely doubted that he would change positions on a dime if someone convinced him another stance would better protect the studios' profits. Even his most admirable battle, against censorship of violent movies, would have been more noble if the MPAA rating board itself didn't replicate one of the worst habits of the crusaders outside the industry: reserving their fiercest fire for art that actually explores the roots and consequences of violence. (As Henry Jenkins put it the other day, "moral reformers rarely take aim at mundane and banal representations of violence though formulaic violence is pervasive in our culture. Almost always, they go after works that are acclaimed elsewhere as art…precisely because these works manage to get under their skin." You can see a similar process at work when you consider what gets a PG-13, what gets an R, and what gets an NC-17.)

Nonetheless, when outsiders tried to clamp down on Hollywood, Valenti was always there to stick up for free speech. As the FCC issues a dubious report about the dangers of violent TV and every two-bit censor tries to hitch his cause to the Virginia Tech massacre, I'd much rather listen to the man who liked to remind us that "Every parent in America has the total power to control all television programming that is dispatched to their home today." Rest in peace.