Rats' Feet on Broken Glass

June 08, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- What a difference a landslide makes. Before the watershed election of 1994, when Dan Quayle took a pea-shooter to the entertainment industry, the industry and its media cousins responded with righteous wrath.

For his critical one-liner about the single parenthood of Murphy -- Brown, the title character on a brain-dead television show he'd never watched, the former vice president was alternately derided as a nitwit and depicted as the front man for the forces of darkness. Yet all he'd done was make a snippy comment.

Now Bob Dole, armed and irritable, is walking through the Hollywood junkyard doing some serious plinking, and the industry is in full panicky retreat. As he snaps off a few rounds, there is a sound like rats' feet over broken glass as the Hollywood types scatter and dive for their hidey-holes.

The change of attitude is especially apparent in the corporate boardrooms of the great media monoliths, where the realization is just setting in that the only people in the world who matter aren't all Democrats any more.

It isn't just the change of parties in Washington that is getting the media tycoons' attention, either. Well-regarded Democrats like Bill Bradley of New Jersey are on their case over the content of their product, and the very markets they rely on are getting restless. The New York-Hollywood arrogance of yesteryear is, well, gone with the wind.

Remember the pompous Gerald Levin, the Time Warner chairman who three years ago was defending the corporation's release of the sickening rap song ''Cop Killer?'' In 1992, casting himself as a bold defender of free speech, he was pledging never to retreat.

Now he isn't so sure. According to Time, which five years after the creation of the Time Warner conglomerate is starting to view Hollywood with a less star-struck gaze, some rebels on the corporate board are telling Mr. Levin that it's time for a strategic -- advance to the rear. These directors include Henry Luce III, whose father founded the magazine.

Defenders of pop culture's willingness to play, publish, print or broadcast absolutely anything, no matter how offensive to no matter how many people, still invariably try to wrap the issue in the Constitution. Because the First Amendment guarantees free speech, obscenity laws are unconstitutional.

But this time around, hardly anyone is talking about laws. The attacks by Senator Dole and others on the most debased products of the big entertainment factories are using economic and social pressure, not the threat of censorship.

Sometimes these forces work in tandem, as when they seek to block the use of tax dollars to support objectionable art. But sometimes they're at odds. As Senator Bradley notes, occasionally ''the market that the economic conservative champions undermines the moral character that the social conservative desires.''

Because social considerations can have an economic impact, however, markets do respond to consumers' values as well as to their dollars. Thus the Time Warner board knows that if the entire corporation appears to most of the public to have been turned into a pornography factory, the resulting damage can't possibly be offset by record profits from the gangsta-rap division.

We've certainly come a long way, in the history of our country's struggle to reconcile artistic freedom and middle-class standards, from the trial in the early 1960s over the American publication of D.H. Lawrence's ''Lady Chatterley's Lover.''

At that trial, the defense called the critic Malcolm Cowley as an expert witness to testify to the novel's literary value. He did so. Then on cross examination, the government's lawyer asked Cowley to read a passage describing one of Constance Chatterley's liaisons with Oliver Mellors, her gamekeeper-lover.

''Would you agree that [Lawrence] probably omitted no detail in the description of the act?'' the attorney asked Cowley, a large florid-faced man with snow-white hair. Cowley was clearly flustered.

At that point the defense lawyer, Charles Rembar, rose to object. ''I don't know that Mr. Cowley is qualified in this area,'' he said. Everyone in the courtroom had a good titter, the case proceeded, and soon you could buy Lady Chatterley in any airport or drug store.

That was a more innocent time, and we won't get back that way again soon. In the meantime, while we're waiting to find out if Bob Dole has gotten Hollywood's attention or simply terrified it, the ultimate defense against objectionable movies and television will be not to watch.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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