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June 22, 2001 12:55am
Bush Just Says No to Hollywood Probe
Source: Reuters/Variety
by: Pamela McClintock

(WASHINGTON) -- The Republican White House quickly rode to Hollywood's rescue Thursday when tacitly declining to join Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) in going after Hollywood for deceptive advertising.

Early in the day, Lieberman sent a letter asking President Bush to support legislation that would vest the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with authority to fine Hollywood when certain age-restricted movies -- as well as music and video games -- are plugged to kids.

``We're simply saying that if a movie studio, record producer or video game maker voluntarily labels something as unsuitable for children, then they should not market those products directly to children. That's not censorship. That's common sense,'' Lieberman wrote.

But by late afternoon, White House officials said Bush would prefer instead to work with entertainment industry leaders.

``The president has previously talked about this issue and his approach. The president believes we all have a responsibility to work together to find common-sense, family-friendly ways to reduce excessive and harmful material,'' White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan told Daily Variety.

``Like most Americans, (Bush) is disturbed by the amount of violent entertainment. The president is committed to providing parents with the tools they need to protect their children from unhealthy images. He is committed to working with leaders in the industry to encourage less violence, less substance abuse and less sex in entertainment,'' McClellan said.

Regardless, Lieberman still poses a formidable and shrewd force for Hollywood to reckon with.

As much as entertainment execs would like to ignore Lieberman's crusade, they can't -- with Democrats now in control of the Senate, Lieberman is chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. In addition, Democrats control what comes up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Shortly after sending off his letter to Bush, Lieberman told reporters that he will hold hearings on media violence and ratings systems, most likely in July. He said he's also in discussions about redirecting the FTC legislation from the Senate Commerce Committee to his committee.

``We too have First Amendment rights. We have a right to be advocates for parents,'' Lieberman said. ``Frankly, we are trying to touch (the entertainment industry's) sense of shame, so that they will draw lines they will not cross.''

At the same time that he asked for Bush's support, the senator sent letters to GOP pols on Capitol Hill and Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) asking for their aid.

Also Thursday, a companion FTC bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Steven Israel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.). Osborne has ties with the conservative leadership in the House.

Lieberman said Hollywood's fascination with ``sex, violence and vulgarity'' makes parenting very difficult and that his legislation is perfectly reasonable. He said the industry hasn't made enough progress on its own.

Abiding by a new marketing initiative drawn up by Hollywood's top lobbyist, Motion Picture Assn. of America president-CEO Jack Valenti, studios insist they have taken concrete steps to stop the marketing of violent, R-rated movies to kids since the FTC issued a blistering report last year.

``From an industry standpoint, we are all working very diligently to support new marketing policies. It's irrefutable that there have been significant changes in the way films are being marketed and even in which films are being made,'' one studio executive said.

Entertainment industry execs take some solace in the fact that Lieberman hasn't been able to rally Republican support for his FTC measure, at least in the Senate. Other Democrats co-sponsoring the bill include Sen. Hillary Clinton (news - web sites) (D-N.Y.)

``I don't want to go overboard, but it's not a bill that has attracted a lot of support,'' a Hollywood lobbyist said.

Valenti said Lieberman's legislation goes against the First Amendment, not to mention that it would essentially gut the MPAA movie ratings system.

Under Lieberman's proposal, the FTC would use a movie's rating as a benchmark. If a movie rated R for violence is marketed to kids under 17, the studio could potentially be held liable for deceptive advertising.

``This bill is fatally flawed. It actually punishes those who voluntarily rate their films and provide information to parents while giving those who do nothing a free pass. This is illogical and anti-parental information,'' Valenti said.

Ditto sentiments come from the Recording Industry Assn. of America president Hillary Rosen.

``In regards to today's introduction of the Israel-Osborne Media Marketing Accountability Act ... we repeat the same concerns that many raised when Sen. Lieberman introduced his proposal in the Senate: Measures such as these raise serious constitutional questions and could prove to be counterproductive if put in place,'' Rosen said.

Hollywood execs said Lieberman's crusade is part and parcel of his widely anticipated 2004 presidential bid. They also say Lieberman is spreading misinformation when talking about ``adult'' rated content, since an R-rating doesn't mean ``adult'' only; rather, anyone going to the film under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult.

Lieberman said the R-rating category is too broad, and again urged Valenti to re-evaluate the system. Some in Hollywood agree with Lieberman on this point and have likewise approached Valenti about splitting the R-rating, in the manner of the PG and PG-13 ratings.

Valenti himself considered splitting up the R rating, but has made no further mention of such a move.

Late last month, former FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky wrote Lieberman a letter stating that the pol's bill ``has the best chance of surviving judicial review of any proposed legislation I have seen'' regarding the First Amendment and Hollywood.

Pitofsky, a Democrat who stepped down in deference to the new administration, said that Hollywood has indeed made ``real improvement'' in terms of marketing tactics -- parenthetically noting that ``it could hardly be much worse than it was before.''

``Much remains to be done, however, and if improvement does not continue, your initiative on the legislative front should be pursued,'' Pitofsky wrote in the May 29 letter, which Lieberman made available.

The flurry of letters doesn't step there. Earlier this week, the National Institute on Media and the Family, the American Medical Assn. and the American Psychological Assn. were among those signing correspondence to Congress urging that the TV, movie and video game industries develop a uniform rating system to make it easier for parents.

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