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Hollywood: Ground Zero

The entertainment industry looks inward and speaks out on its products and their relationship to real-life violence.

May 01, 1999|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The arts reflect what is going on in our culture," he said. "The arts don't control the culture. . . . The reason that music is violent today and the reason that it appeals to people and resonates with people is that's what the world is like today. . . . All artists try to do is talk about what they see around them and the lives they are living."

Rolling Stone editor Wenner agreed: "Before the Los Angeles riots, the mainstream media was not documenting the level of rage in the black community, but rap music was," he said. "No music called anybody to [riot], but that music told us the truth of what was going on out there."

Defying the chorus sentiments of his peers, Chuck D., of the seminal rap group Public Enemy, said music, television, film and video games "absolutely" affect the world view, growth and behavior of young people, especially if their parents are ill-equipped to act as filters.

"We're living in a time of mass images and if a kid's reality is not being realized, fantasy and reality blur together," the rapper said. "And that can lead to life imitating art."

Interestingly, many people who defend the content of their own art are quick to criticize others, or at least to acknowledge that some popular art violates their personal definition of what is responsible. TV producer Robert Singer also draws the line at video games.

"I am appalled by the games that are out there," he says. "Because I think that that puts the gun or the weapon right in someone's hands, and the result is right there, and you score points for killing people."

And while contending that violent art merely reflects reality and so shouldn't be condemned, Rubin said that personally he doesn't like certain movies. "I don't go to the movies that often because of [the violence]," he said. "I would never tell anyone that they shouldn't be doing it or want to censor it. It's not what I enjoy, though."

A Personal Connection to Littleton Tragedy

Despite the graphic impact of TV images from Littleton--despite the anger or sorrow or despair it all evoked--most Americans viewed the event from a safe emotional distance. They weren't personally affected. Most had never heard of Littleton, Colo.

But not Williamson. The executive producer of inspirational shows grew up in Denver, less than 10 miles away from Littleton, which she knows well.

Her shows teach moral lessons, but, she says, "I am trying very hard to practice what I broadcast these days. Which is, how will I find it in my heart to forgive . . . what these [parents and their sons] have done to my hometown and to my country?"

An episode aired on "Promised Land" last year in which a trench-coated youth shot up a school. Last week, a show involving the shooting of a kid who wanted to get out of a gang was pulled from the air because of the shooting.

"He ends up getting shot on the school premises at a Denver school," Williamson said of the postponed episode. "You couldn't call it an upbeat message, but it dealt very positively with the responsibilities of parents. . . . It was not elevated, it was not glorified. What we showed were the damages, the consequences.

"There is no question in my mind that television influences what children do. . . . Everything you see, whether you call it instantly to mind, consciously or not, stays in your brain. And I remember images that I saw as a child. And I remember the images of Vietnam as clearly as I remember the images of 'Mary Tyler Moore.'

"If parents consider it an inconvenience to sit with their children and watch--or direct-- what their children are watching, then what are they doing being parents? Why bother having children if you don't want the responsibility?"

But though Williamson is critical of neglectful parents, she doesn't let the media off the hook.

"There is no one more responsible for the future of our country than the people who are feeding the minds of our children: the network executives. There, I said it. And filmmakers. . . . And the music definitely. And it's crazy because music gets into people's heads. And the lyrics and the words become a litany or a mantra."

In 1992, when Ice-T's "Cop Killer" caused an uproar, Time Warner halted its distribution of the song on Sire Records. And in 1995, Time Warner sold its interest in the label that produced much of the company's "gangsta" rap, Interscope. Movie producer Lauren Shuler-Donner thinks that was a display of responsibility: "There is a line, and Warner came up to that line and did the right action."

But how do you balance responsibility to shareholders against the public good?

"Everybody has choices," said Esparza, the movie producer. "We all have a choice as to how we make a profit. There are issues of societal good that impact all of us. In my opinion it's a cop-out to say that responsibility to shareholders dictates our actions to ensure profits."

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