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Lieberman May Not Like TV, but Camera Loves Him

August 11, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

No ordinary Joe.

Soon-to-be nominee Al Gore's choice of Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate may benefit Hollywood should that ticket win in November.

Lieberman's arduous schedule as a U.S. senator from Connecticut has kept him from watching much television. He said as much recently when asked why--as someone so publicly opinionated about what he regards as entertainment TV's wayward ways--he monitored the small screen so infrequently.

"I'm busy," he protested. As his two-term record of intense activity in the Senate suggests.

But soon, if the Democrats have their way, he will be liberated from those long hours.

In the less demanding, mellower, largely ceremonial job of vice president, Lieberman would have much more time to take remote in hand, switch on TV, kick back with the family and get acquainted firsthand with the programming he regularly savages.

That would be TV's "rising tide of glorified violence and increasingly explicit sexual content" that he and three other senators assailed this summer in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission. Writing broadly of the "rapidly declining standards of broadcast television" that they found especially harmful to the nation's children, they urged the FCC to "reexamine the public interest standard and the license renewal process" under which broadcasters operate.

"There's only so much I watch myself," Lieberman, the crusader for better TV, said in an interview at the time. "I flip the dials. I read some of the reports on content."

If he and Gore win the election, though, he'll likely have time on his hands that he can utilize by taking in television. That will make him a more informed critic--perhaps leading him to change or moderate some of his views--because his opinions of TV will be based on actual viewing instead of mostly on reports compiled by others whose criteria for quality may not necessarily coincide with his. Empirical knowledge works best when attacking media.

There's a growing buzz in some circles about what effect a Lieberman vice presidency might have on the course of television. That would remain to be seen. Surely presidents, as philosophically divided as Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, have sought without much success to reshape elements of TV that irritated them. President Clinton and Vice President Gore, too, have publicly excoriated TV content, as have some prominent Republicans led by Arizona Sen. John McCain and self-appointed culture and values cop William J. Bennett.

That's partly because the violence and notably the raunchiness of broadcast TV--to say nothing of cable--does make a fat target, and partly because the medium historically is available to politicians as a scapegoat for the nation's ills. In Oxnard on Wednesday, GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush joined that chorus, calling for changes in the mass media.

Clearly, though, Americans generally are getting the television they want, or else so many wouldn't keep watching.

Lieberman's belief that TV contains too much sex and violence reflects "the social conservatism of Orthodox Judaism" to which he adheres, an expert on the topic said Wednesday during "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS.

Social conservatism, all right. No problem, either, with asking more of an industry that is always inclined to give less. Yet the troubling thing about Lieberman from a TV perspective is that--despite repeating his assurances during a Tuesday chat with CNN's Larry King that his allegiance to the 1st Amendment is ironclad--he does seem anxious to impose his views on others and limit at least some expression that offends him.

On the one hand, he admirably pushed hard for the V-chip, a law-mandated apparatus in new TV sets that allows viewers to electronically bar from their homes programs whose content ratings they find objectionable. Although not perfect and subject to fine tuning, this union of technology and content ratings on most entertainment programs places responsibility for TV choices where it belongs, with parents and other viewers now armed with more information than ever about the TV available to them.

And if they are as indifferent to the V-chip as they appear, so be it. It's democracy. The people have spoken.

But that appears not good enough for some of the critics who respond badly when the choices of viewers conflict with theirs. As if the V-chip didn't exist, you have Lieberman and others who supported it still lobbying for content changes in programs that don't suit their tastes or philosophies, regardless of their popularity with the rest of the U.S.

In defiance of the marketplace, they sanctimoniously continue to rail about shows that substantial chunks of the U.S. endorse, issuing their invectives not as casual observers but as hardbodies with political muscle seeking to influence government regulatory agencies.

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