President would curtail violence in movies, TV

December 07, 1993|By Robert A. Rankin and Angie Cannon | Robert A. Rankin and Angie Cannon,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said yesterday that he will work to convert America's movies and TV programs into a force to battle violence and the breakdown of families.

Mr. Clinton said that he plans to meet with leaders from the nation's entertainment industry to encourage them to develop a "disciplined, organized initiative" to promote those themes in their work.

Mr. Clinton discussed the rising tide of violence in America's cities and its connection to violence on TV and in the movies during a White House interview with editors and correspondents from Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

The president suggested that the climate is ripe for radical change in the way Americans respond to violence. He pointed to the powerful public response to his signing last week of the Brady Bill that requires a five-day wait before purchase of a handgun.

"The enormous, almost emotional outpouring that we received in the aftermath of the Brady Bill signing, even though everybody knows it's only the tip of the iceberg, is an indication that there's something pretty profound going on in the country," Mr. Clinton said.

During the wide-ranging session, Mr. Clinton and aides defended their first-year record and outlined the president's plans for 1994, which will focus on health care and welfare reform.

Violence and popular culture was the prime topic, however, as Mr. Clinton expanded on themes he first struck in a Nov. 13 speech to black ministers in Memphis, Tenn., and which he connected to TV and movies in a speech to Hollywood executives Saturday night.

In both speeches, Mr. Clinton spoke bluntly about the sensitive issue of violence erupting amid the primarily black urban underclass.

Yesterday, Mr. Clinton stressed that today's explosion of violence stems from complex social and economic roots. He said the violence was particularly influenced by America's pop culture.

The president described the steady economic decline of America's inner cities, accompanied by a second trend of accelerating family breakdown.

Those forces formed a kind of social "vacuum," Mr. Clinton said, and related problems of drugs, guns and gangs only made life inside it worse.

"What you see now happening is that the economic hardship is JTC also creating a large white underclass, with the same sort of family separating pressures at work, so that now the out-of-wedlock birth rate among whites is now above 1 in 5," Mr. Clinton said. "So it is now credible for us to argue that this is not a racial issue. It happened to hit black Americans first, I think because the economic collapse hit them first, but you see that no other whites, Hispanics, Asians, nobody else is immune to this."

That "vacuum" environment makes children of the underclass more vulnerable to the powerful influence of violent images on TV and in movies, the president told some 400 Hollywood leaders Saturday.

"You can't take away the violence, because it's part of American life, you certainly can't take that out of what's presented as entertainment," the president conceded. "But there are different ways to do it. And I think that movies can begin to reshape the culture."

Mr. Clinton praised the movie "Boyz 'n the Hood" as an example of how movies could advance positive values without compromising artistic integrity. The film shows how gang violence among black youths in Los Angeles leads to death and despair for everyone involved.

Presidential counselor David Gergen took pains to emphasize that "we're not blaming the industry for the violence. No one knows how much influence that television or movies have on people's behavior."

TV network executives have met recently with Attorney General Janet Reno and others at the Justice Department and the White House to discuss these concerns, Mr. Gergen said. Ms. Reno bluntly warned the entertainment industry in October testimony before Congress that if it doesn't clean up its act, government will -- but the White House takes a much more soft-sell approach.

Mr. Gergen also stressed that "there is a very great reluctance within the administration to impose restrictions or regulatory legislation" on the entertainment industry. "We would like to work in a cooperative way" he said, adding that "we have been very encouraged by the response of the [TV] networks."

Presidential counselor George Stephanopoulos said the entertainment industry is making a related effort to "write positive elements into scripts." An early example, he said, is using "designated drivers" in TV plot lines.

Yet neither the administration nor industry executives are pushing "codes" of content guidelines, Mr. Stephanopoulos said, because such efforts raise questions of censorship. At the same time, he added, if the industry does not act voluntarily, "a backlash" clearly could erupt in Congress and public opinion.

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