Issue 74, Summer 1999

by Frank Rich
The New York Times, June 19, 1999

This essay is about political exploitation of the Littleton school-shooting tragedy. Rich describes proposals offered by Congress and the President as “quick fixes”–not serious treatment to prevent real-life violence:


When Bill Clinton and Henry Hyde band together to protect the morals of America’s youth, it must be time to lock up our daughters.

What brought these two former antagonists together is the tragedy of Littleton — well, not so much the tragedy of Littleton, but the chance to exploit the tragedy of Littleton for political profit. Polls show that most Americans regard violent pop culture as an unindicted co-conspirator in the massacre perpetrated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. So why not a quick fix, with or without a toothless dash of gun control, that will accomplish nothing beyond impressing the most harried or clueless suburban parents?

Mr. Hyde, displaying the same linguistic flair that led him to describe an adulterous affair in his 40’s as a “youthful indiscretion,” believes that the entertainment industry “gets away, literally, with murder.” He promoted his scheme to stamp out media homicide in a Washington Post op-ed essay this week that approvingly quoted the recent moral pronouncements of the very President he had vilified as the Antichrist. But Congressman Hyde’s effort to rid books, movies, TV and even sculpture of “toxic waste” fared no better than his impeachment crusade. His bill was so broadly written that even Bob Barr voted against its vision of a Soviet-scale bureaucracy with license to censor everything from “Home Alone” to TV news of atrocities in Kosovo to the Brothers Grimm.

Undaunted, Mr. Hyde, Mr. Barr and other culture warriors of the right signed on to Plan B: an equally unconstitutional bill that aspires to counter Hollywood values by permitting the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Perhaps Congress should be the guinea pig for this scheme: Let’s post the tablets in the House chamber for a year, then administer polygraph tests to see if it has prevented each member from violating the Commandments — especially numbers three, four, seven, nine and ten.

Mr. Clinton’s phony two-pronged contribution to the war on Hollywood is no less frivolous. His commission of a year-plus, $1 million study to determine whether the entertainment industry deliberately merchandises violence to kids seems mainly conceived to give Al Gore a photo op at the height of election season. To find out that yes, Hollywood does sell violence to teen-agers, its largest audience, all you need is the price of a movie ticket and 15 minutes to spend watching previews.

The other Presidential gambit — the carding of under-17-year-olds trying to sneak into R-rated movies — is pork for the phony-I.D. market and unenforceable at any multiplex with more screens than ticket-checking employees. Just watch what happens once June 30 brings the first nationwide test: the opening of “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” the R-rated adaptation of the satirical, violence-flecked animated TV series about rebellious kids whose co-creator, Matt Stone, grew up, as it happens, in Littleton. The entire market for “South Park” is under-R-age teen-agers, and, as its producer Scott Rudin candidly told Entertainment Weekly back in April, “they’ll figure out a way to get in under the radar.” Any parent knows that the only real hope for keeping a determined teen-ager out of an R-rated movie may be to change its rating to an uncool PG.

Transparently cosmetic as the President’s palliatives are, he is being given credit for taking on his deep-pocketed Hollywood friends. He doesn’t deserve it, for, despite some knee-jerk howls of McCarthyism from the vicinity of Morton’s, he has done nothing to seriously threaten the movie industry’s status quo. He’s as disingenuous a guardian of family values as some of his Republican counterparts, who have show-biz alliances as tight as the President’s to Dreamworks.

The G.O.P. answer to Mr. Clinton in cynicism is, predictably, William Bennett. The bodies had hardly been buried in Littleton when Mr. Virtue took the pulpit of “Meet the Press” to target “the Levins, the Bronfmans, the people who run Viacom” for spewing cultural rot; in testimony before Congress the following week he singled out “the Edgar Bronfmans, Howard Stringers, Michael Eisners and Oliver Stones.” Hmmm. Who’s missing from this litany of rogues? The Republican fat cat Rupert Murdoch, whose movie studio, Fox, will bring out what may be the most violent (and perhaps most entertaining) summer movie, “Fight Club,” which, in the screenplay I’ve read, opens with a handgun barrel lodged in its hero’s mouth and ratchets up from there. Since “Fight Club” stars Edward Norton and Brad Pitt and has been directed by the gifted David Fincher (of the grisly “Seven”), it is prime teen-age bait, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Mr. Bennett to campaign against it or any other Murdoch product as he has against Mr. Eisner’s relatively tame “Scream.”

The truth is that just as the Democrats have their own handmaiden for the National Rifle Association — John Dingell of Michigan, who collaborated with the G.O.P. whip, Tom DeLay, to sabotage already mild gun-control legislation this week — so the Republicans are increasingly in bed with show biz, and not just with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mr. Murdoch. In 1997-98, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than half of the entertainment industry’s corporate contributions went to the G.O.P. The party’s presumed standard-bearer, George W. Bush, has served on the board of Silver Screen, the company that helped finance the first R-rated movies at Mr. Eisner’s Disney — though, to his credit, Mr. Bush has so far spared us any hypocritical sermons about pop culture.

There’s something almost cruel about those politicians who do give us those sermons — and empty promises of action — in the aftermath of Littleton. Instead of pandering to frightened parents by prescribing placebos, they might tell voters the truth. For even if Washington would or could “clean up” Hollywood without violating the First Amendment, there’s scant evidence to suggest that doing so would prevent a single Columbine. (Nor, by the way, would its symbolic, Band-Aid restrictions on gun shows.) In the sensible formulation of Jonathan Kellerman, a best-selling novelist and clinical child psychologist, “Movies and videogames don’t turn good kids bad, and bad kids are dangerous long before they watch their first gorefest.”

Bill Clinton talks of hundreds of studies demonstrating a connection between simulated violence and the real thing, but he overstates the data. As James Q. Wilson, the conservative expert on crime, summed up in The Times, “No doubt violence on television and in the movies heightens aggression among some people some of the time, but we have virtually no evidence that it affects the serious crime rate.” In fact school violence and juvenile arrests, as well as murder rates, have declined as movies have become bloodier. “The Matrix” — an engaging, not desensitizing, movie that gave me and my 15-year-old son much to talk about — may well defuse, not provoke, adolescent male anger.

But let’s say that the most egregious violent movies and games should be toned down anyway — not because doing so will stop one twisted child from stealing a gun and going on a rampage but because it will improve the overall cultural climate, especially for children. How can we accomplish this? Sure, we can yell at Hollywood potentates to exercise editorial restraint when making and selling garbage, and maybe some of them will. But to get real results in a society with free speech and a free market, we have to vote not for pious politicians but with our pocketbooks for the culture we say we want. No one is forcing American families to subscribe to the pay-cable services that program violent movies; no one requires adults to watch Jerry Springer in eye-popping numbers (and then abandon him the moment his show is stripped of violence by a circumspect TV mogul); no one has mandated that every household purchase a bloody video or computer game (90 percent of which are bought by adults).

The only politician — past or present — who has had the guts to say out loud that Americans bear some responsibility for the culture they get is a Texan who isn’t running for anything this year. In the aftermath of Columbine, he told Larry King that if “we weren’t watching” junk, Hollywood wouldn’t shower us with it, and that “if we wanted great positive entertainment for our children and we watched it, that’s where the ads would be [and] where the industry would be.”

It shows just how nutty the post-Littleton cultural debate has become when the only public figure making a sane contribution to it is Ross Perot.