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Few in Hollywood Say Hooray to Lieberman's Visit, Moral Plans

Entertainment: The senator is pitching a bill to let the FTC sanction studios that market graphic materials to children.

April 19, 2001|MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman brought his moral campaign to Hollywood on Wednesday, his first political trip since last year's presidential election. Lieberman said he wanted to "reach out to the community here and see what we can do to work together" to slow the flow of violent and sexually explicit materials.

Hollywood, however, didn't stand up and applaud.

At separate breakfasts with studio executives and film directors, Lieberman received a chilly reception when he announced that he will introduce legislation in Congress to allow the Federal Trade Commission to sanction studios that marketed sexually graphic or violent materials to children.

"We're hoping that we don't have to come to that," Rob Reiner said after Lieberman's breakfast with nearly two dozen members of the Director's Guild of America.

"I think it's dangerous," Reiner said. "That legislation runs the risk of being too general. There are some R-rated movies, like 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'When Harry Met Sally' and 'Schindler's List,' that should be marketed to children under 17."

Lieberman's second stop was at a breakfast to talk with members of the Motion Picture Assn. of America about his proposed legislation and his other Hollywood cause: overhauling the movie ratings.

Some of those studio executives were so infuriated when they learned that reporters and television crews would be hovering that they demanded their meeting be moved far from the glare of cameras. Lieberman complied, keeping quiet the meeting's location, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Lieberman spent a total of 24 hours in Los Angeles, flying in late Tuesday after giving a speech on economics at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. On Wednesday, he delivered a foreign policy address at USC after squeezing in a political fund-raiser at Spago in Beverly Hills.

The speeches and fund-raisers fueled speculation that the former Democratic vice presidential nominee was positioning himself as a possible presidential candidate in 2004.

The subject of Lieberman's ambitions surfaced during a late-morning meeting with the Creative Coalition, a New York-based group of artists, writers and producers led by actor William Baldwin, whom Lieberman described as a longtime friend.

"There were some whimsical statements made about 2004. He was cagey about it," said actor Ed Begley Jr., who attended the Creative Coalition gathering with Lieberman.

Unlike some studio chiefs, who felt they were being used as props for a Lieberman photo opportunity, the coalition members described their meeting as cordial and constructive.

"It's important that we keep him as an ally," said Begley. "We have a much better chance speaking to Sen. Lieberman than we do with the Bill Bennetts of the world."

After his series of meetings, Lieberman spoke with reporters, conceding that he's unsure whether he'll receive support in Congress for the legislation that he plans to offer with Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.).

Hollywood studios wield much power in Washington, Lieberman said, adding that during his eight-year campaign speaking out against media violence and sexually explicit materials, Wednesday's sessions were the first time he had met with so many ranking studio executives in one room.

"In this effort, I've come to accept the notion that progress comes in small steps," he said.

By introducing the bill next week, Lieberman may ride a wave of publicity expected with the release of a follow-up report by the FTC, which last fall documented the studio practice of targeting children in the marketing of R-rated products.

"The law would set a standard that would go beyond the FTC report," Lieberman explained. "It would set a standard that ought to be there."

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said Wednesday that she does not support Lieberman's proposed legislation.

"I do not want the FTC becoming the television nanny. I think that is a disaster waiting to happen," said Boxer, California's junior senator, who will meet with the MPAA today to discuss her interest in piracy and intellectual property theft.

The MPAA meeting was the day's only contentious one, with association President Jack Valenti acting as provocateur.

After Lieberman outlined his plan to give the FTC power to prosecute offending entertainment companies, Valenti whipped out a copy of a letter written last year by FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky. According to studio executives at the meeting, Valenti read from Pitofsky's letter, "Significant and unsettled 1st Amendment issues exist that may affect the viability of an FTC action or remedy."

Lieberman defended his legislation, saying it would leave it up to the FTC to come up with regulatory guidelines that would pass constitutional muster.

"We're not talking about criminal penalties here," Lieberman said. "I don't want to lock anyone up."

But, he said, his Hollywood mission was "to appeal to people's better and truer natures."

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