Americans saw a good example last week of the entertainment industry regulating itself. After listening to critics, advertisers, and its own employees, CBS fired radio host Don Imus for his recent racist and sexist jab. Now, if only more media executives could display such courage.
Mr. Imus himself may yet learn from his mistake and restart a chastened career elsewhere. And CBS might have learned that forgoing profits for the sake of conscience will pay it a different kind of dividend – in public goodwill.
Media executives worry about "crossing the line of acceptability," and they gave another example recently by punishing a Hollywood movie, "Captivity." The film, due out in May, depicts the violent torture and death of a young woman. Its ad campaign was so gory that the Motion Picture Association of America demanded it be stopped. The industry group also suspended the film's rating process, leaving it unrated and thus with fewer theaters willing to run it.
It's difficult to tell if such self-regulation reflects an embrace of good values or the fear of a government crackdown. Congress, responding to parents unable to contain their children's exposure to raunchy, racist, or violent media, keeps threatening action. So far, it has mainly put pressure on the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to watchdog the industry.
Last week, for instance, the FTC issued a report on selling media violence to children. Since its last report seven years ago, the FTC found the industry has made limited progress in protecting young people under 17 from violent content.
As a result, the FTC wants more industry prohibitions and sanctions on "target marketing" of violent media to children, better self-regulation at the retail level, and greater help for parents in using ratings and labels.
The 140-page report, which relies on hired 13-16-year-olds to act as undercover shoppers, did find that video-game retailers have greatly reduced the ability of teens to buy mature-rated games – from 85 percent able to do so in 2000 compared to 42 percent last year. But the FTC criticized the industry's heavy advertising of violent products on websites popular with teens.
In the music industry, about three-quarters of teen consumers still can buy CDs that contain parental warnings about explicit content. And the industry still advertises such fare on cable TV stations with high teen audiences.
About 4 in 10 children are still able to buy tickets for R-rated movies. The report urges particular action against the marketing and selling of unrated or "director's cut" DVDs with "R" ratings. These movies erode the current ratings system.
The limited success so far of volunteer efforts by many retailers, especially large companies such as Wal-Mart, shows that the industry can do more. But as FTC chair Deborah Platt Majoras stated, "Self-regulation, long a critical underpinning of US advertising, is weakened if industry markets products in ways inconsistent with their ratings and parental advisories."
The FTC report should renew efforts by the entertainment industry to be more responsible for its influence on society. Throwing Imus off the air, and the many others who still perform as he did, will show the industry can police itself.