By Doug Brunell | February 16, 2006

The only person who cares more about what America’s children see on the screen than our politicians is Jack “I’m not a censor” Valenti. Valenti, who seems blissfully unaware that his very public love of the First Amendment and film is in direct opposition to the clandestine and fickle film ratings board he put in place, appeared in front of the Senate Commerce Committee on January 19, 2006 for a session on Decency in the Media. The crux of this session, which also included David Cohen (the Executive Vice President of Comcast) and Charles Ergen (CEO of EchoStar Communications), was about the proposed changes coming to cable in the form of Family Tier and a la carte programming.

The three men before the Senate Commerce Committee seemed confident and poised, convinced they were doing the “right thing.” They were going to protect American families, despite the obvious problems with their methods, which people like Senator Conrad Burns (a Montana Republican) pointed out. Valenti, whose leadership in the crusade to keep children from accidentally seeing a boob or two nobody would argue, actually seemed sensible to less discerning minds. As he related a tale of having his grandchildren watch “Saving Private Ryan” so that they could understand the horrors of war, he started talking about what families really had to do to protect their young.

According to Valenti, a “moral shield” must be built for children. This shield should be constructed at home, church and the school. He stressed that it isn’t the artist’s job to be a moral compass, and nor should it be. It sounds reasonable (except for the schools building morals part), but Valenti’s prior actions as head of the Motion Picture Association of America shoots all kinds of holes in his seemingly liberal platitudes. He did, after all, put in place a secret board whose job it is to rate movies (thus limiting the amount of money that could be made by them, restricting the audience that could see them, and dictating what kind of advertising could be done). This is a board where the only qualification necessary to enable you to serve is that you are a parent. By Valenti’s own guidelines, serial killer/child molester/father Albert Fish was better suited to rate a movie than, well, any number of people.

The senators all seemed to realize that children really can’t be protected from images on a screen outside the home, and the Democratic Senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, was quick to point out that a large number of people in America seem to want to see sexually oriented material. He called it an “overriding” interest and cited some facts on what movies were most watched in hotel rooms. He also pointed out that while parents and other adults may want to see these movies, they wouldn’t necessarily want their kids to see them. Thus, it may be more important to protect children than it is to protect entire families when some members of those families don’t seem to mind a little T & A.

As the session progressed, Senator George Allen (R, Virginia) pondered if maybe the fines for broadcast networks that violate “decency standards” should be increased to help deter things like Janet Jackson’s breast popping out at inopportune time in front of most of the country. Valenti appeared to be particularly distressed by this, though in all fairness Cohen and Ergen would not comment since they are in the cable industry and are “loathe” to discuss things that could hurt their competitors. Valenti told Senator Allen that he was “nervous” about a network or person being indicted for a crime that is “vague” and that there needed to be a definition of the standards.

Does anyone else see the irony of these proceedings?

Let’s start with the easy target: Valenti and his nervousness about vague standards when it comes to indecency in films and television. The ratings board he put in place, as noted by almost everyone who has ever worked with it, is at the very least vague … and that’s being kind. Was Valenti nervous about these things when he was the head of the MPAA, or did he just get that way when the cable and broadcast networks started looking to him for advice on how to make their products safer for children? Instead of taking his grandchildren to see Steven Spielberg films, Valenti should be taking them to the library to look up words like “hypocrite” and “mountebank.”

Then there’s the committee. On the surface it appears that these are people trying to do the right thing by protecting children and families from the “harmful” influence of television and movies. These things are strawmen, though, that tend to get people riled up for no real reason at all. They also aren’t proven to be harmful. That’s right. There’s no concrete proof that they cause honest-to-God harm. Sure, some studies say one thing, and others say another. It all sort of depends on who is paying for the study. There are some things out there, though, that cause real harm to families and children.

In Montana, the state which Senator Burns serves, only 18 percent of all the jobs pay enough to support a family of two parents and two children. Families with two working parents often can’t afford healthcare for their children, and many make too much to qualify for aid.

New Jersey, Lautenberg’s state, is home to a city called Camden. Camden, according to the “City Crime Rankings, 12th Edition” released in 2005, is the most dangerous city in the nation — two years in a row, I believe. If a family is lucky enough not to live in Camden, it can experience the joys of eating at restaurants and diners where exposure to smoke pollution is 3.4 times higher than the EPA limit for “acceptable outdoor air quality.” This is due to the fact the state has yet to pass (as of December 2005) the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, and hasn’t been able to do so for the past eleven years.

And Virginia’s own Allen, the guy who suggested bigger fines for broadcast television when one of its shows offends “decency”? He’s so concerned with the welfare of children and families that he voted against increasing Pell grants to college students. He also voted against increasing funding for grants to all states for special education and related services for children with disabilities. And in a true show of compassion for families and children, voted against providing emergency health care and other relief to Hurricane Katrina survivors.

With poverty level jobs, toxic air, and national disaster survivors suffering from all kinds of nasty things (and let’s not forget to mention a war that is eating our young like ravers dine on E), these jokers are worried about “Nip/Tuck” being seen by a thirteen year old. Are they insane? No. They are smart. Television and movies are easy targets. Tackling real problems like livable wages, clean air and substandard Pell grants would open a can of worms that Washington D.C. isn’t ready to handle.

It’s our fault, too. We buy into this, and we don’t make politicians accountable for their actions. We don’t call them on their lies, and we embrace their faulty arguments. There are shows and movies that aren’t meant for children to see, but finding ways to restrict their access is the least of the problems facing our youth and families, though it seems to be the one problem given the most attention by politicians and the public. We need to change that, and it starts by pointing out how hypocritical all these people really are. You can’t believe Valenti. You can’t trust Lautenberg, Burns or Allen. So why even listen to them? Why not call their bluff? They’ve made it easy to do (and fun). So why not do it? Why not write to your town’s newspaper and say you don’t need politicians deciding how to regulate what your family watches? Why not post on message boards? Better yet, why not call these politicians up?

Senator Burns’ Washington D.C. office number is (202) 224-2644.

Senator Lautenberg’s Washington D.C. office number is (202) 224-3224.

Senator Allen’s Washington D.C. office number is (202) 224-4024.

Call them and let them know that while you appreciate their efforts in keeping America’s children and families safe from things they may find offensive, you think there are bigger problems facing them than a television show, movie, or sports event. And while you’re at it, tell them “hi” for me. I plan on being a thorn in their side for a long time to come.

Discuss Doug Brunell’s “Excess Hollywood” column in Film Threat’s BACK TALK section! Click here>>>

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