Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Shocked, Mr. Mogul? Look at the world you tell kids is cool

By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune
Published March 2, 2004

One of my lawyer friends spent the day at the headquarters of a recording industry client to talk about protecting copyrighted material from being downloaded over the Internet by teenagers.

At the end of the day, he said goodbye to the company's top executive, who thanked him for all his help and handed my friend a stack of the company's most popular new CDs, all filled with songs about shooting people, selling drugs, being pimps and "gangstas" and raping women. As he talked about how proud he was of the company's music, he shook his head in wonderment at the way teenagers did not seem to understand that downloading music was wrong.

"What's the matter with these kids?" he asked. "Why don't they have any sense of morality?"

He may be the only one left who sees no irony in that question. It's time for the people who sell our kids music, movies and video games to think a little bit about the messages they are selling them, too.

I'm not advocating a return to the old Hays Code, which governed all Hollywood movies from 1930 until the MPAA rating system was developed in 1968. It seems quaint to us now, but the Hays Code governed everything from the length of on-screen kisses to the portrayal of clergy, who were not allowed to be shown as foolish or corrupt. Its most famous application was ruling that Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind," could not use the d-word in the famous "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The studio ended up paying a $5,000 fine rather than make Butler say "darn."

Under the current system, anything goes, and the Motion Picture Association of America's anonymous ratings panel assigns ratings that are supposed to provide some guidance about the movie's content.

They tend to be very formulaic, based on body parts, graphic violence, and particular words rather than what they call "thematic elements." So last year's lovely "Whale Rider" gets a PG-13 for a brief reference to drug use, but they give a PG to "Catch That Kid," a movie about a child bank robber who heartlessly manipulates her two best friends and risks the lives of her friends, her baby brother and everyone else in her path.

The point of view of the movie is that all of this is OK because her father needs the money for an operation and the bank president is really mean. In the end, she has to give the money back, but she never has to deal with the consequences of her actions.

Also rated PG and heavily marketed to younger kids is "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," with a heroine who lies to her mother and her best friend, asks a friend to steal a dress for her, wears extremely skimpy and revealing clothes and tries to crash a party so she can meet her favorite rock star, who turns out to be drunk.

The movie treats all of this as nothing more than "girls will be girls"-style high spirits. She gets grounded, but that doesn't interfere with her starring in the school play and having the rock star come to her town to let everyone see that he's her friend.

Then there is "The Perfect Score," a PG-13 movie produced by MTV, about a group of teenagers who steal the answers for the SATs. All of this is OK because the SATs are really hard, and colleges really care about them. In the end, the kids don't use the answers, but turn them over to a bunch of stoners who then ace the test and get accepted to Ivy League schools.

Bypassing the M rating

Despite the M (over 17) rating, over 70 percent of teenage boys have played the video game "Grand Theft Auto," where players score points by driving over people, having sex with a prostitute and then killing her, shooting police, carjacking and running drugs.

Amazon's review of the latest version raves, "The combat system has been tweaked and will allow you to easily target combatants while pummeling more than one victim at a time. There are a number of new weapons, including machete and chain saw, and an improved targeting system that makes it easier to pick out your victim in a crowd."

That version, called "Vice City," has been challenged in court by civil rights groups because of its direction to "Kill the Haitians." The manufacturer has apologized and agreed to remove the offending language, but of course that still leaves all the machetes, chain saws, prostitutes, drugs and murderers.

Higher penalties

Last week, broadcast executives were called before a congressional committee to discuss new, higher penalties for violating decency standards. Just before appearing, John Hogan, president of Clear Channel Radio, the nation's largest chain of radio stations, announced that Infinity Broadcasting Corp.'s shock jock Howard Stern's program would no longer air on Clear Channel stations, following years of extremely raunchy and explicit broadcasts.

Hogan also said Clear Channel talk show host "Bubba the Love Sponge" had been fired. In January, the FCC fined Clear Channel $750,000 for allegedly indecent content in a Bubba broadcast. Hogan said he was ashamed of the show: "I accept responsibility for our mistake and my company will live with the consequences of its actions."

Hogan said that while he supported the FCC's proposed higher fines for future broadcasts, Clear Channel's lawyers are still reviewing the recent fine for Bubba's violation of FCC rules, so he would not commit to paying it.

Comic-strip character Pogo once famously said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." It is time for the people who produce the media our children consume to recognize that if they bombard them with messages that it is cool to lie and steal, some kids will decide that there is nothing wrong about downloading movies and music. One sin kids will always recognize is hypocrisy. Unlike the characters in their songs, movies and games, recording and film industry executives cannot avoid the consequences of their actions.

The Hays Code said, "the MORAL IMPORTANCE of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work."

Maybe that's not as outdated and quaint as we thought.