Remote Control

This week the Federal Trade Commission officially accusedHollywood of intentionally luring children to violent movies, TV programs, and video games. Although the FTC doesn’t support legislation of entertainment industry marketing, Al Gore might, and Slate’s “Culturebox” columnist, Judith Shulevitz, does too. In this conversation, she and Jack Shafer, Slate’s deputy editor and “Press Box” columnist, debate whether ads for violent entertainment should be regulated, censored, or just turned off.

Dear Judith,

If I start drawling like a junior Jack Valenti, grabbing myself by the lapels to proclaim The Right of Hollywood Artists To Scatter Viscera All Over the Gigaplex because, hey, Shakespeare did it at the Globe, please have the boys in Redmond pull the plug on the Slate servers. And if I come even remotely close to stereotyping you as the Nurse Ratched of the nanny state, please hit me with a defamation suit. Assuming, as I do, that you’re no prude, no bluenose, and no bowdlerizer, I intend to exploit your anti-censorship views to convince you that giving the Federal Trade Commission the power to regulate the marketing of movies, video games, and music in the name of consumer protection would be an abomination, not to mention an unconscionable surrender to hysteria.

How’s that for truth in marketing?

The timing of the FTC report, as you write, serves the demagogues well. In this election year, few candidates will wage a principled stand against the report lest their opponents’ campaign commercials cast them as unindicted Columbine triggermen. But the FTC plan isn’t the only anti-media-violence plan afoot. Currently pending in the Senate is the Media Violence Labeling Act of 2000, co-sponsored by everybody’s favorite candidate for vice president, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and by Sen. John McCain. The bill would authorize the FTC to rate movies, games, and recordings for violent content. According to a critique by Professor Ronald D. Rotunda of the University of Illinois College of Law, the bill would make an FTC rating label mandatory for all movies, games, and recordings. Producers who refused to display the FTC rating on their entertainments would face a $10,000 fine for each day of noncompliance. This scheme stinks of prior restraint to Rotunda and prompts the question of why we should want to give the government the power to license any expression, violent or otherwise.

OK, I’ve already gone Valenti on you after promising I wouldn’t. You’ve taken the high moral ground trying to protect the kids from the bloodletters and bad men of Hollywood marketing, and I’m shoving you down the slippery slope of argument to make you look like an Orwellian censor. Because I vowed to fight fair allow me to back up and consider the nightmare on the table—the FTC report—not the nightmare in the waiting room.

Before we gasp at the horror of those craven Hollywood bastards peddling their rated-R-for-violence films to our innocent Suzies and Jamals with ads on mtv.com, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in Seventeen magazine, shouldn’t we ask which R-rated films the FTC investigated? It turns out that the FTC selected 44 rated-R-for-violence movies and found that 35 of them “were targeted to children under 17.” But which films? A seasoned cinéaste such as you knows that there’s a world of difference between the fierce violence of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and the stylized smashup of John Woo’s Face/Off. But the FTC isn’t saying, preferring to play Joseph McCarthy and wave its list of 35 guilty movies all over Washington without actually naming names.

How distraught would you be if you learned that one of the 35 violent movies that Hollywood targeted your 14-year-old with was Face/Off? Not very, I’ll bet. There’s one school of thought that the existing rating system actually increases the violent and sexual content of films. Hollywood knows that the young audience routinely eschews PG and PG-13 flicks as fodder for toddlers, so it routinely inflates the ratings of movies to R by adding gratuitous dollops of violence and sex. Could it be that Hollywood movies would be less violent if the MPAA rating system didn’t exist? In any event, until the FTC comes clean about the identity of the 35 violent movies, we’re arguing about phantasms.

(One quick aside: If it’s OK for parents to take their kids to R movies—”Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian”—why shouldn’t Hollywood be allowed to market to them?)

While I sympathize with parents who feel beaten down by the industry’s multimillion-dollar marketing budgets, I wonder if we’ve become too pre-emptively protective of children, imagining them as delicate flowers that crumble at the slightest touch. We’ve banned seesaws and swings from modern playgrounds, required helmets for even the most casual bicycle trip, and otherwise excised danger and excitement from their lives. No wonder kids crave drugs and R-rated movies! Anything to feel alive.

Can I quote myself without appearing to be a shameless self-aggrandizer? Back in 1997, I wrote  disparagingly about a similar regulatory power grab by Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David A. Kessler. Frustrated in his efforts to regulate tobacco, Kessler claimed jurisdiction over tobacco sales by diagnosing teen smoking as a “pediatric disease” and the marketing of cigarettes to kids as one of the disease’s vectors. While I disagreed with Kessler’s gambit, I could hardly disagree with Kessler’s medical judgment that cigarettes kill. There are few scientific questions more settled than this. Until somebody produces lesion-packed brain scans of kids who’ve been fed a steady diet of pathologically violent movies, I’ll doubt that the FTC has any business regulating movie marketing in the name of consumer protection.

Too Valenti? If so, let me know what measures Culture Czar Shulevitz would feel comfortable taking to prevent the marketing of violent films to kids.