Porn: It's ugly and it makes big bucks

Preview: PBS' `Frontline' connects the dots between skin trade purveyors, politics and Fortune 500 companies.

February 07, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

To see television journalism as it ought to be but seldom is, watch Frontline's American Porn tonight on PBS. It's a bare-knuckled and balanced report on the politics, business and culture of pornography that speaks legions about who we are as a society.

Despite that enthusiastic recommendation, be warned that the report - including an edited version airing on MPT - potentially is extremely disturbing. It's not troubling because of any bare body parts or harsh language, but because some of the acts discussed involve extreme violence and debase women.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not criticizing Frontline. I think the show behaved responsibly by offering PBS stations two versions. I saw both, and found the unedited version acceptable.

But were I the general manager of a public broadcasting outlet, I would air the edited version; the loss in journalistic storytelling doesn't outweigh the possibility that it will greatly upset some viewers.

But even in the edited version, Frontline has to give viewers a sense of what actually goes on in these X-rated videos to make the larger points of the report: the ways in which such companies as AT&T have become the worst kind of pornography traffickers in American life, and the way Bill Clinton's administration allowed pornographers to run wild over the Internet during the 1990s.

The story-line is skillfully set up at the start of the report when a narrator says: "Once it was called smut. The rules were clear: It was obscene if it offended the community standard of decency. The digital age and a political moment changed all that."

The Internet and a multitude of cable channels have an almost unlimited capacity to bring X-rated material into our homes. The new technology coincided with Clinton's mandate to Janet Reno's Justice Department not to prosecute pornography cases.

The irony is that Clinton essentially deregulated the porn industry behind closed doors at the very time he was holding entertainment industry summits in Washington, in which he promised parents that he would help them keep unwanted messages from Hollywood out of their homes.

If you think pornography is a simple First Amendment issue, wait until you meet Rob Black and Lizzie Borden (that's what she calls herself), a husband and wife team that makes porn videos in Los Angeles.

Frontline went to watch her direct a film that featured a woman being abducted, beaten and raped by several men - with the actress' agreement. Then her throat was slashed and her body cut up into parts. The only portions of the video that were simulated were the slashing and butchery.

The producers of Frontline tell viewers on-air that watching this violation of the actress was "more than we had bargained for." As the narrator explains it, "and while it appeared that what was happening was legally consensual, we left."

That's how ugly this stuff is: Frontline's camera team and reporter walked away from the scene of the taping. I applaud them for admitting it.

Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler denounces AT&T on camera for pumping such material into American homes by carrying X-rated channels like the Hot Network. "We've been asking AT&T to get out of the hardcore porn business," he says.

"When a company like AT&T gets into this business, it's a way of legitimizing it," he says.

A letter is shown in which AT&T defends itself by saying that such competitors as General Motors and Comcast also are making money off porn.

Yes, that's the same Comcast that owns cable TV in Maryland, and soon will have its name on the University of Maryland arena.

And, yes, that's the same Comcast that wants to merge with AT&T to form what Frontline says will be "porn's biggest pipeline."

Frontline

What: American Porn

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)

When: 10 p.m.

In brief: An untold story about an ugly business in boom times.

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