Clinton fight against Hollywood violence appears to be dead

March 10, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

It was a sure-fire applause line when President Clinton condemned Hollywood's "incessant, repetitive, mindless violence" during his State of the Union address, and it worked. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike exploded into applause.

But that easy one-line sound bite apparently was it for Mr. Clinton; aides said he has no plans to follow through on his call with any sustained pressure on Hollywood.

However, he will appear in public service videos decrying drugs and crime that movie theater chains recently agreed to show after their features. He may also hold a "town meeting" focused on youth crime that would include experts discussing the impact of entertainment media, said Rahm Emmanuel, a senior White House aide.

But no speech crusade is planned. No regular follow-up contacts with Hollywood executives is maintained to pressure them for progress.

"There were some discussions. They probably didn't go as far as they should have," conceded William Galston, a top domestic policy adviser to Mr. Clinton.

By dramatically challenging the entertainment industry to clean up its act, Mr. Clinton had a chance to rally people on a question of values that hits Americans where they live -- watching TV shows and movies. Potentially, Mr. Clinton could seize this "values" issue from Republicans, who have owned it ever since Dan Quayle tangled with TV's "Murphy Brown" over single motherhood, by exercising what Theodore Roosevelt defined as the "bully pulpit" power of the presidency.

"The bully pulpit can have an impact if it is used consistently, which is something Clinton has never done," said Bruce Buchanan, a scholar of the presidency at the University of Texas.

"This [bully pulpit leadership] is a presidential tradition. Teddy Roosevelt jawboning. Lincoln. Kennedy talking down steel prices," noted William J. Bennett, author of the "The Book of Virtues."

Told Mr. Clinton has no plans to follow up his appeal to Hollywood, Mr. Bennett sighed. "He has access to that community . . . friends . . . leverage. And it's too bad because it is very important."

The public thinks so.

Some 68 percent of Americans believe the most influential force shaping young people's values today is popular entertainment -- movies, TV, rock videos -- and they are not happy about it, according to a 1991 study by Mellman & Lazarus, a consulting firm in Washington.

A recent Times Mirror poll reported that 80 percent of the public believes TV violence is harmful to society, up from 64 percent 10 years ago. And a USA Weekend poll found that 96 percent of the public believes TV glorifies violence.

Social scientists say society suffers from it. In 1992, the American Psychological Association reviewed 3,000 studies of effects of TV violence and concluded there is a direct connection "between viewing violence and aggressive behavior."

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., who has led congressional inquiries in this field for years, said "the evidence that television violence does harm is now just as overwhelming as the evidence that cigarettes do harm."

In 1993, the Clinton administration seemed eager to do something about it. Attorney General Janet Reno bluntly told Hollywood to temper its graphic portrayals of violence or Washington would. That threat prompted protests about infringement on First Amendment free-speech rights -- but got some results.

The big TV networks and cable-TV owners commissioned elaborate academic studies to document the extent of violence in their programming. Results, due later this year, may set benchmarks for measuring progress -- or may be ignored.

Mr. Clinton will attend a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in Hollywood on April 8 at the home of director Steven Spielberg. Asked if Mr. Clinton will challenge Hollywood to curb violent content there, Mr. Emmanuel said no decision has been made.

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