WASHINGTON — President Clinton launched a federal inquiry Tuesday into the entertainment industry's marketing of violent movies, music and video games to children--an unexpected move that stunned and angered Hollywood.
The 18-month, $1-million study by two federal agencies will expedite a similar examination sought by Congress and sets in motion the same sort of sweeping inquiry that helped expose the tobacco industry's quest for young customers.
"We can no longer ignore the well-documented connection between violence in the media and the effects that it has on children's behavior," Clinton said, citing about 300 studies over 30 years that show "a link between sustained exposure--hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year--to violent entertainment and violent behavior."
Clinton's action authorizes the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to examine whether movie studios, record companies and video game manufacturers violate their voluntary rating systems by labeling some products as unsuitable for children and then marketing those products to them.
The president was careful not to affix the harsher term of "investigation" to what he termed a study. But for all intents that is what it is--an unprecedented federal inquiry by two agencies with the subpoena power to demand internal memorandums, e-mail and other confidential correspondence.
Hollywood reacted strongly to the news. One studio official called the investigation "a witch hunt." Some accused the president that the industry has so generously supported--most recently at a star-studded fund-raiser last month in Beverly Hills that raised $2 million for the Democratic Party--of laying blame for the recent spate of school violence at Hollywood's doorstep.
One entertainment industry lobbyist complained that Clinton seemed to be violating the spirit of a White House conference he convened three weeks ago after the high school massacre that took 15 lives in Littleton, Colo. At that private meeting, Clinton urged gun manufacturers, movie makers, record producers and others to avoid assigning blame for such tragedies and instead to join in the search for ways to prevent future ones.
"A month ago," the lobbyist said, "he has everyone holding hands and says we'll do great things with initiatives and panels and, before that has a chance to roll over in its crib, he smothers it with this bully pulpit maneuver."
In entertainment circles, many were outraged by the timing of Tuesday's Rose Garden announcement--which the White House made known to some insiders late Friday, on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend. That left them with little chance to rally opposition. Entertainment industry lobbyists called the White House asking the president to rethink his plan, to no avail, according to industry and White House sources.
In the wake of the Colorado school shootings, Hollywood has felt itself, distressingly, in the company of controversial industries like gun manufacturers and tobacco firms. And Tuesday's announcement officially put it there. The investigation is not unlike the one that the FTC pressed against R.J. Reynolds' Joe Camel, a cartoonish ad character that some critics thought invited children to smoke.
The Senate last month passed a bill, now pending in the House, calling for an investigation of marketing to youth by both the entertainment and gun industries. But Clinton asked that the investigation focus solely on the entertainment community.
Some political analysts wondered why Clinton stepped in at all, offending some of his party's most generous contributors when Congress was on track to order an investigation anyway. White House officials noted that Clinton's action will allow the inquiry to begin immediately, whereas the congressional initiative would not begin until Oct. 1--the new fiscal year.
"The FTC was very eager to do this and to focus in particular on whether these [entertainment industry] rating systems are what they say they are, whether the advertising works against the spirit of the rating system," said one senior White House official.
"We told [Hollywood] and they let us know they weren't very happy," the official said. "They're pretty good at that."
At the White House ceremony, Clinton minced no words. "We have got to quit fooling around with this. . . . I know this stuff sells, but that doesn't make it right."
He blasted video games in particular--sharing the stage with 9-year-old Arthur Sawe of Seattle and applauding the boy's good judgment for telling his mother about one game's ad that bragged of being "more fun than shooting your neighbor's cat."
Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Assn., a Washington-based trade group, agreed that the ad may have been "over the line." But he added that dozens of magazines written for game enthusiasts are targeted to those over 18, and that parents are responsible for screening the contents.