A month ago, while addressing a high school class, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) was asked what recent Hollywood movies he would recommend. The Hawaii senator immediately suggested three: "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List," and "The Patriot."
It was only this week, during a Senate hearing on the marketing of violent films to children, that Senator Inouye realized all three of the movies he suggested to the high school class were R-rated for violence.
Inouye, who considers all three films "monumental," says his gaffe before a class of 14- to 16-year-olds shows that attempts by Washington to rein in Hollywood violence won't be easy. "I don't know what the answer is," he says.
The latest uproar over violence in Hollywood films - a topic with a 50-year history in Washington - was triggered by a report from the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC study concluded this week that Hollywood filmmakers, as well as the producers of video games and music, are peddling violent wares to children younger than 17.
But this week's response from music, video, and filmmakers raised some doubts about the FTC report, and illustrated why Inouye and others on Capitol Hill say that there are no simple solutions to violence.
Danny Goldberg, a long-time record executive, challenged senators and regulators who suggested that new federal laws may be the answer.
Mr. Goldberg, who has two young children, told the Senate Commerce Committee: "I do not believe either government or any entertainment-industry committee has any business in telling me and my wife what entertainment our children should be exposed to."
Like Inouye, Goldberg also enjoyed a recent R-rated movie, "Erin Brockovich." He liked it so much that, despite its R-rating for foul language, he recommended it to his 10-year-old daughter.
"Others may disagree," he said, "but this country will cease to be free the day that one group of parents can tell all other parents how to raise their children."
The three industries sent representatives to the Senate to argue that they are already addressing the issue of violence in effective ways.
Pre-teens in R-rated focus groups
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, admitted that one aspect of the FTC report left him surprised and chagrined. It was the section that said a movie firm had put 10- and 12-year olds in a focus group to test the appeal of an R-rated movie.
"I had no idea," Mr. Valenti said. "Now I do. I can guarantee you that's not going to happen any more."
On other aspects of the report, however, Valenti was firm. He challenged the FTC conclusion that teens were being "targeted" just because ads for R-rated movies were placed on TV shows that are popular among Americans under 17.
Among the programs cited by the FTC, for example, were "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "South Park." Valenti noted that while many teens do watch "Xena," nevertheless 77 percent of the show's audience is 18 and over. Adults make up 79 percent of the "South Park" audience.
Peter Moore, president of Sega of America Inc., a leading producer of video games, charged the FTC with "speculation" when it concluded that just because violent video games were advertised on certain TV shows like "The Simpsons," children were being sought out.
"This type of speculation is unconscionable in a document that has all the appearance of a scientific survey," Mr. Moore told the Commerce Committee. "These TV shows have wide, mainstream appeal, and as such, they inevitably capture some younger and older consumers than the shows' core audiences."
Committee chairman John McCain of Arizona appeared to enjoy the combative response of the entertainment officials, and encouraged them to challenge any point of the FTC report.
Even so, Senator McCain excoriated Hollywood, specifically citing Sony for attempting to market "an extraordinarily violent" movie, "The Fifth Element" with Bruce Willis, to an audience of 6- to 11-year-olds by placing TV ads on Nickelodeon.
He also promised to keep the heat on the movie industry with another hearing in two weeks.
Censorship is no cure
Strauss Zelnick, president and CEO of BMG Entertainment, responded to such criticism by saying: "None of this means ... that the government should serve as the censor of our art and the regulator of our speech. Yes, violence is a terrible problem. But government interference with free expression is a cure that is worse than the disease."
Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts also expressed caution.
Some of today's performers are controversial, Senator Kerry noted. But so were Elvis Presley and James Dean in their time.
Violence is a problem with many root causes, Kerry said. It cannot all be blamed on one industry.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society