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Culture Warriors, Meet the Parents

Politicians gunning for the media are careful to keep parental responsibility out of the cross hairs. But that's a crucial factor in the battle to protect children.

April 29, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer. His "On TV" column appears Wednesdays in Calendar

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who came within a few hundred votes of being vice president of the United States, visited Los Angeles recently pushing his campaign to prevent violent and sexually explicit entertainment from reaching children.

Lieberman is fond of illustrating support for his efforts via an oft-told anecdote about a grateful mother who urged him to press onward. Parents, he says, "should not have to compete with the popular culture" in raising their children, and there is no reason to believe his intent is anything but sincere.

Still, when it comes to helping parents, it is equally clear politicians are prone to choosing safe political targets and sparing others--notably excluding, in most instances, the obligations of parents themselves.

The day after Lieberman's coolly received tour of Hollywood, for example, a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study was published that suggests children in day care tend to be more disobedient and aggressive when they enter kindergarten than children with a stay-at-home parent.

Among the implications, by no means conclusive and understandably troubling to many parents, is that day care--a more recent cultural phenomenon than television or movies--could be contributing to social problems involving children. Given the number of parents relying on day care, the argument is a polarizing one, as underscored by Dr. Laura Schlessinger's mantra "Don't have them if you're not going to raise them," which has raised the hackles of some working mothers.

Whatever the ultimate merits of that argument, however, it is a nonstarter politically--hardly the way to woo soccer moms and affluent two-career families. Few politicians who value their job would stand up at a fund-raiser and say, "Some of you are doing a lousy job raising your kids. Don't turn the TV into a full-time baby-sitter.

"For those in higher tax brackets, put your briefcase down and pay some attention to your children. If you're really concerned about what they watch, taking the TV out of their rooms would be a good place to start. And if your kid is spending enough time alone to become unusually proficient at violent video games--or learning how to make bombs--you have been neglecting your responsibilities."

Indeed, what seems to have been lost or ignored by those waging the so-called cultural war, in regard to movies and television, is the notion of parental responsibility, which was always the handmaiden of any attempt to mitigate the impact of Hollywood's basest impulses.

Consider the furor in the 1990s over establishing a TV ratings system, which may have begun as a reaction to broadcasting's excesses but ostensibly focused on providing parents more information to decide which programs were appropriate for their children to watch.

Small wonder, then, that in the wake of adopting such a system, networks were perplexed to come under fire again for the nature of their ratings (pretty much everything receives an innocuous TV-PG, or parental guidance, label)--criticism that hasn't disappeared in the wake of a revision to the system adding letters cautioning viewers about sex, violence (the "V" in V-chip), dialogue and language.

Sure, television remained awash in innuendo and sexuality, but parents did indeed have more data--if they looked for it--to make an informed choice. In similar fashion, motion-picture industry executives responded to a damning Federal Trade Commission report about their marketing practices with an elaborate plan to curb marketing of R-rated films to children, as well as provide more information regarding why movies received certain ratings.

Yet Lieberman is nevertheless forging ahead with legislation that would empower the FTC to sanction studios for marketing sexually graphic or violent materials to kids.

In short, despite the concessions they have extracted, politicians keep returning to the issue like swallows to Capistrano. This has fostered a prevailing sense within the entertainment industry that these critics cannot be mollified, prompting many to simply dismiss political bashing of Hollywood as a cyclical threat that will surely arise from time to time--the periodic hurricane that quickly blows over--no matter what safeguards are put in place.

While one can argue that the transparent aim of Hollywood's critics is to curb content--using marketing practices or ratings codes as a means to skirt charges of censorship--Lieberman, at least, insisted in a meeting with Times reporters and editors that he is "a great believer in the 1st Amendment."

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