Hollywood: the power and the evil

Monday, July 26, 1999

All eyes turn to Hollywood these days in search of both blame and remedy for whatever ails us at the moment.

And right now, what ails us, at least if we believe our elected and self-elected leaders in Washington, D.C., is the “evil” coming out of Hollywood and into our homes. It is blamed for everything from the tragedy at Littleton to road rage on our highways.

So the White House wants to investigate it, Congress wants to regulate it, and a whole host of advocacy groups wants us to hate it.

Ironically, when we invest the entertainment industry with so much influence, we grant it real power in our lives. In fact, Hollywood has become such a power that now we are petitioning it rather than government for a redress of grievances.

The National Organization for Women, angered over the way Hollywood portrays women, is moving out there to try to influence programming. The NAACP, angered over the way Hollywood doesn't portray minorities in the networks' fall TV schedule, is setting up shop in Hollywood, also, to monitor its programming choices.

Even members of Congress — despite their tendency to blame all sorts of bad things on movies and television — regularly court their counterparts in Hollywood for campaign funds, for celebrity endorsements, and to raise the public profile of whatever issue they might be touting at the moment.

“The entertainment industry is capable of changing public opinion, which of course in turn influences policy,” is the way NOW President Patricia Ireland explains the focus on Hollywood.

Even so, abandoning the political approach to addressing our problems and embracing instead the strategy of lobbying by inference is rather weird, even in these days and times. It presents us with a rather cynical view of politics and power. If image is everything, then substance is for naught, fantasy trumps reality, fiction betters truth, and the good sense of the American people is discarded as an irrelevancy.

True, there are striking similarities between the nation's capital and the movie capital. In both places, who you know opens doors, what you know closes deals, and rumor and gossip are the currency of most value. The favorite sport in both capitals, of course, is partisan bickering.

In Hollywood, the latest bout of internecine barking and snarling is over the movie-rating system, occasioned by the excision of 65 seconds of film from Stanley Kubrick's movie “Eyes Wide Shut.” Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and film critics such as Roger Ebert have had at one another recently in Variety. One side says the rating system is arbitrary and capricious. The other says it rescued Hollywood from the Hays Office, the government censorship board that monitored movies before 1968, and fended off subsequent threats to regulate movie content.

Valenti was the chief architect of the movie-rating system, which has successfully kept regulators at bay for 30 years; and it was Valenti who brokered the TV ratings and V-chip deal between government and the entertainment industry when lawmakers turned their attention to TV programming a few years ago.

That is the way the game is played, isn't it? Urged on by advocacy groups and its own imperative to govern, lawmakers threaten the entertainment industry with laws, even if they would be unconstitutional, and the industry dutifully sets about censoring itself in order to prevent the government from doing it.

Unfortunately, that is a lesson never learned by entertainment accommodationists.

Failing to take a principled stand against such coercion may seem easier, less costly and more socially responsible at the time, but ultimately the costs are much greater — in the quality of work, in the relationship between artist and audience, and in the durability of the First Amendment compact between the people and the government.

The movie-rating system is a good example of what looks good theoretically and politically but doesn't work so well in practice.

The rating system sets up a board of anonymous people as arbiters of taste and propriety. Whether it wishes to or not, such a board must pass judgment on the artistic merit of a work, something that whole generations or populations have been famously unable to do with countless works of art and literature.

The ratings are creatures of the cultural whims of the moment — for example, violence gets a pass but sex doesn't — which in turn requires untenable judgments about the good or the harm of specific characters, subjects, words and images.

They mislead and cheat the very public they are supposed to help because they are subjective judgments.

The ratings quickly become entrenched as the standard, forcing creators to change their work, often in substantive ways, to bring their works into compliance.

They create categories that the movie distributors won't touch, either for legal or marketing reasons.

They become weapons in the hands of retailers and large chains that wish to impose their values on everyone else.

They invite discrimination in advertising.

They tempt codification by lawmakers.

They serve as the precedent for threatening other entertainment entities to create similar systems — or else.

Ultimately, the rating system breaks faith with the idea that artists should be able to speak directly to the audience without having to mold their expression to the will of a ratings board.

True, it is a voluntary system. No moviemaker has to submit himself to it — unless, of course, he would like to market his work on a par with other movies competing for the audience. True, it does stand as a barrier to lawmakers who would intrude more into the process — but only temporarily.

That is because of a political immutability: Accusing Hollywood of evil is one thing (good sport, actually). Ceding to it real political clout, however, simply will not be tolerated by politicians whose sinecure is power.

That is why there is always a lawmaker somewhere, or a self-appointed guardian of public morals and civic virtue, plotting to limit and direct Hollywood's voices. Just last week, for example, Empower America and the Media Social Responsibility Project of George Washington University sent out an “Appeal to Hollywood” that was less an appeal and more a threat and warning.

The appeal was endorsed by William Bennett and Sens. Sam Brownback, John McCain, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Joseph Lieberman, who have made a name for themselves in recent years as those most qualified to determine what is good and what is bad in the way of expression and entertainment.

The V-chip and rating system for television programming has not even been implemented fully, yet the authors of this “appeal” want more, a “voluntary” code of conduct to ensure better entertainment fare for the nation. Congress is preparing a legislative loophole around antitrust laws so that the entertainment industry can impose the code on itself.

Sen. Brownback characterized the state of mind of those making the appeal when he said that labeling “trash” was not enough. “Why not just take out the trash altogether?”

Congressman Ed Markey revealed a similar mindset when criticizing the television industry for not proceeding fast enough in preparing for the V-chip. “These sluggish syndicators must speed up compliance immediately,” he griped last week. Note the use of the word “compliance” in the context of a so-called voluntary rating system.

Consider for a moment the remarkable audacity of those who would arrogate to themselves the right to decide what is or is not trash, what is good taste and what is bad taste, what we should or should not hear and see. They would deny to their fellow citizens freedom of choice in what they say and what they want to hear others say.

It may well be that Hollywood is evil and has power, but the power for real evil still remains in the hands of the people who make our laws and coerce our “compliance” from Washington.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.