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Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 1999 /17 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Bush to fight 'culture wars' -- positively -- TEXAS GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH is not declaring victory and going home from the culture wars, aides say, but it remains to be seen how aggressively he'll fight the steady coarsening of American life.

When Bush criticized the conservative notion that America is "slouching toward Gomorrah" on Oct. 5, "we did not intend to paint a rosy picture" of U.S. culture, a top aide said. Bush is getting ready to deliver another education-policy speech in early November that focuses on character, discipline and violence. An aide said it would have "a large element of cultural critique in it."

As Bush aides describe it, though, the speech is likely to be a "positive" program for bolstering the role of schools, parents and churches in inculcating values rather than a "censorious" denunciation of the moral rot infecting U.S. culture, especially through the media.

It would be great if it were both. Two studies -- one out in September and another due in November -- document just how progressively sleazy American television is becoming, although even casual viewers can see it for themselves.

Sex has become the predominant subject of prime time broadcast entertainment. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, one depiction of or reference to sexual activity occurs every four minutes on TV.

In some of the most heavily sexual shows, according to the center, such as NBC's "Friends" or Fox's "Beverly Hills 90210," the depictions or references average 20 to 25 instances per episode.

Another study, by the Parents Television Council, reported in September that the so-called "family hour" on TV -- 8 to 9 p.m. Eastern time on weekdays, 7 to 9 p.m. on Sundays -- has "become dramatically more foul-mouthed, sex-saturated and violent" over the past two seasons.

Reviewing 45 hours of programming on six broadcast networks during the last two weeks of the TV season in May, PTC found 304 instances of sexual content, violence or obscenity, or nearly seven an hour -- up 75 percent from 1997.

PTC found that 100 percent of the Fox network programs aired during family hours contained sexual material, 89 percent for ABC, 75 percent for WB, 73 percent for NBC, 50 percent for UPN and 36 percent for CBS.

A sampling of content cited by PTC showed that -- even during prime viewing hours for young children -- characters are constantly discussing "having sex," taking their clothes off, having orgasms or erections, and referring to penises -- once a never-heard word on any television.

The networks frequently run the most suggestive sound bite from an upcoming show as a tease to viewers -- compounding the impact of the shows' content.

In and out of the family hour, broadcast TV increasingly is attempting to compete with cable, where nearly anything goes in language or sexual and violent visuals.

Each season, TV stars and producers congratulate themselves for "pushing the envelope" on nudity, sex and foul language, as though that were an artistic achievement.

CBS' hospital show, "Chicago Hope," just used the phrase "Sh-t happens" for the first time in prime time. The expressions "pissed off" and "sucks" are now so routine they appear on news shows -- along with "semen," of course.

So far, the "f" word and full-frontal nudity are no-no's on broadcast television, but the new Fox show "Action" uses the word constantly with bleeps, and partial nudity is an envelope constantly being pushed.

Why should anyone care? The executive editor of the entertainment trade paper "Variety," appearing on "Dateline NBC" this week, said, "I think audiences are not offended because ... television is reflecting much more how the younger generation think and act and behave."

One could also argue -- as you'd expect a conservative candidate to argue -- that TV is inculcating the values and behaviors depicted.

Even though social indicators on crime, welfare and suicide have improved during the past decade, those for out-of-wedlock births have not. Thirty-two percent of U.S. children are born to unwed mothers annually, compared to 10.7 percent in 1970. The figure for blacks is 69 percent.

Bush is concerned about the problem. He has advanced an abstinence education program, promising that as much federal money will be spent on it as on teen contraception and that he'll ask the General Accounting Office to evaluate federal sex education programs.

On the campaign trail, Bush regularly declares that as president he wants to usher in "the responsibility era that stands in sharp contrast to the last few decades when the culture has clearly said, `If it feels good, do it' and `If you've got a problem, blame somebody else.'"

In the Oct. 5 speech, however, Bush declared that "too often, on social issues, my party has painted the image of America slouching toward Gomorrah" -- which was interpreted as his distancing himself from cultural conservatives.

He was attacked by, among others, former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, author of a 1996 book, "Slouching Towards Gomorrah" (Regan Books), which documents cultural pollution.

Bush's staff admits that the remark was off-target and was meant not for Bork but activist Paul Weyrich, who had declared that conservatives should admit defeat in the culture wars and quit politics.

Bush's November speech marks his return to the culture wars. I hope he names names.

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


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