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Jewish World Review August 15, 2001 / 26 Meanchem-Av 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

Is Bush's 'values initiative' serious? -- IF President Bush wants to be taken seriously with his new initiatives on "values" and "character," he needs to start taking on the purveyors of sex and violence in the entertainment industry.

To his credit, Bush has set a personal example of dignity in the White House and has sought increased funding for "character education" in schools.

However, he has left it to others -- notably Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Sam Brownback, R-Kan., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- to put heat on Hollywood, television networks and the recording industry.

Bush aides say that, beginning this week and continuing into the fall, the president will speak out regularly on values and character as part of his larger effort to remind voters that he is a "compassionate conservative."

Nevertheless, if the effort is not to be perceived as just a cosmetic or small-initiatives makeover, such as Al Gore tried in the 2000 campaign and one-time White House adviser Dick Morris suggested to Bill Clinton, Bush needs to begin making an impact on a worsening cultural climate.

Moreover, if he wants to restore his image as a moderate, he should broaden the administration's sex education policy to include "safe sex" advice as well as abstinence -- or at least allow local communities to choose a mix of programs.

On the cultural front, Bush has been utterly silent, even as recent studies and congressional testimony demonstrate that the entertainment industry is escalating its pollution of popular culture and also to resisting efforts to help parents monitor to what their children are exposed.

The conservative Parents Television Council reported last week that instances of violence, sexual explicitness and profanity during the so-called family hour on broadcast television has increased by 70 percent over the past two years.

Another conservative group, the Independent Women's Forum, reported last month that although college women overwhelmingly claim they want to marry, a significant minority is caught up in a pattern of "hooking up" -- engaging in no-commitment, one-time sexual encounters.

Meantime, Surgeon General David Satcher reported in June that 45 million Americans (one in six) are infected with genital herpes, 22 percent of women reported they had been raped, and 100,000 children are sexually abused each year.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that 18 percent of high school girls in Massachusetts reported having been physically or sexually abused by a boyfriend.

According to recent Congressional witnesses, children spend an average of 6.5 hours a day involved with various media (three of those hours are spent watching television) and may see as many as 15,000 sexual references per year on the tube, only 170 of which promote responsible behavior.

The relationship between violent and sexually explicit media and behavior has been documented again and again, but it is still being disputed by industry executives, most recently by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Valenti wrote David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, that the scientific community is split on whether media affect children and said the evidence was "inconsistent and weak." Valenti also claimed at a Senate hearing before Lieberman and Brownback that 70 percent to 80 percent of parents find that existing movie ratings are helpful to them and that it's impossible for the industry to do better.

For this, Valenti got blasted -- justifiably. Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School said that "among thousands of studies, all but 18 have shown a positive association between viewing violence and subsequent violent behavior."

Rich said the MPAA's surveys compared existing ratings to a system in which no ratings existed at all.

Lieberman cited polls showing that 74 percent of parents found movie, television and music ratings inadequate, and that by 40 percent to 17 percent, parents favor a uniform ratings system across media.

According to Brownback, "The music industry is, by far, the worst of all" because it leaves it entirely up to record producers whether to place a parental advisory label on an album.

Brownback and Lieberman are trying to get the entertainment industry -- on a voluntary basis, preferably -- to establish clear standards for ratings, create independent bodies to rate material, and make the rating process open to public scrutiny.

In addition, along with McCain and Clinton, they want to give the Federal Trade Commission the power to regulate the marketing of adult material to children.

Bush should join this effort and, in addition, take smaller steps, such as encouraging television manufacturers to inform parents how to use existing devices, such as V-chips, to control their children's intake of Hollywood fare.

By ducking a battle with the entertainment industry, Bush is exposing children to the very cultural influences he's trying to combat with "character education" and "abstinence" programs. Hollywood is winning, and if the president doesn't know it, he should.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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