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Hollywood Winces at Selection of a Critic


Hollywood, take cover.

That was the message heard by many in the entertainment industry Monday when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore chose Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a self-proclaimed "culture warrior," as his running mate.

Many in the predominantly Democratic Hollywood community said they were surprised by the choice of Lieberman, an outspoken critic of the movie and television industries, and were bracing for its impact.

"People are disappointed if this presages more bashing of Hollywood," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, who was fielding worried phone calls from many in the movie industry who were distressed by Gore's choice.

"They have been calls of puzzlement and bewilderment and some anger and some frustration," said Valenti, who has debated Lieberman frequently on the government's role in regulating entertainment content. "I'm hopeful that as a vice presidential candidate he will not make this one of his prime targets. We don't deserve to be made a target of."

The entertainment industry has been a favorite topic of Lieberman, a Connecticut lawmaker and Orthodox Jew who has frequently lamented what he calls the "increasingly toxic popular culture" in television, movies, music, video games and the Internet. Lieberman insists that he is not trying to censor entertainment product or legislate higher standards. But he acknowledges, as he did recently in criticizing the video game industry, that he would consider legislation if the industry fails to police itself.

Just a week before the Democrats' nominating convention comes to Los Angeles, the choice of Lieberman rattled some in the city's creative community, especially because many had just learned that the Democratic Party platform will include a "Responsible Entertainment" provision that seems to echo Lieberman's stance. Valenti called the provision "a prime, blatant example of political pandering at its most shameless." The provision describes a culture "that sometimes seems to practically scream that chaos and cruelty are cool" and calls upon the entertainment industry to "accept more responsibility and exercise more self-restraint."

Political Opportunism Is Not Suspected

Even those whom Lieberman has criticized believe he has done so out of conviction, not political opportunism. But when it comes to popular culture, he has no shortage of concerns.

Over the last year, Lieberman has called for the Federal Communications Commission to consider the content of television shows when renewing broadcasters' lucrative licenses. He has said that if it were up to him, shows like TV's "Friends" would be shown only in movie theaters or late at night so children couldn't watch. He has even asserted that Hollywood "doesn't understand piety."

And every year, he and former drug czar William J. Bennett bestow an annual "Silver Sewer" award to entertainment entities they believe are polluting the culture (CBS got one, in part, for its ties to Howard Stern's syndicated radio show).

Nevertheless, not everyone sounded frightened. Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the founders of DreamWorks SKG and a longtime supporter of (and avid fund-raiser for) Clinton and Gore, called Lieberman "a great choice."

"He is a tough, honest, independent man of highest integrity who is ultimately fair," Katzenberg said. He acknowledged that they have not always agreed but said, "I have always respected his passion and his concern."

Views Put in Context

Katzenberg put Lieberman's views on entertainment in context, saying, "This election is going to set the course of this country for the next decade in terms of education, health care, patients' rights, gun control and campaign finance reform. . . . To think that somehow or another Hollywood is going to find itself at the center of the important issues facing us today I think is suspect at best and unlikely at the least."

But Katzenberg's stance also highlighted a basic truth about the Gore-Lieberman ticket: When it comes to presidential politics, Democrats in Hollywood have no place else to go.

A source who knows Hollywood well and is close to both men on the Democratic ticket predicted: "Everybody's going to fall in line on this. There may be some grumbling, but nobody in Hollywood is going to like the other option."

Lieberman's critiques of mass culture have gotten more air time since last year's massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School, but for years he has pounded the bully pulpit and wielded a legislator's pen in an effort to shame, cajole, prod and ultimately force the entertainment industry to improve the moral quality of its creative product.

In 1997, when the television networks were wrestling with adopting a system to apply ratings labeling the content of their programming based on sex, violence and language, Lieberman said, "We've tried over and over again to explain that you can put a label on garbage, but it is still garbage."

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