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Stars stump, executives testify
Entertainment industry an issue, asset for presidential campaign
(CNN) -- The race is down to hours, the finish line is in sight, and only one man will emerge the winner. Though most people assume that celebrity culture has a left-leaning bias, three presidential candidates have made Hollywood a stop during their campaigns, both for money and exposure.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and professor at the Claremont Graduate School in Southern California, said the reality is that Hollywood is where the money is.
"Candidates of all stripes...want to mine California, not only for its 54 electoral votes, but for its millions upon millions of dollars of campaign contributions," she said.
Loretta Lynn and Bo Derek have campaigned for George Bush, while Jackson Browne and Phil Donahue worked the crowd at a Ralph Nader rally this weekend in Southern California. Jimmy Smits, along with "Will and Grace" star Eric McCormack, knocked on doors in Florida to get out the vote for Al Gore. Even "The West Wing" president Martin Sheen stumped for his presidential choice -- Al Gore -- through a number of anti-gun commercials that aired in swing states.
'A brand endorsement'
Robert J. Dowling, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, said celebrity endorsement is a very powerful thing.
"They are media magnets. They understand media; they understand how to work with media; they get attention because they are celebrities. If you think of celebrities almost like brands, it's a brand endorsement."
From daytime to prime-time to late-night, both Gore and Bush have sought that endorsement, from "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" to Sunday's night's special election version of "Saturday Night Live" to "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
Bebitch Jeffe attributes much of the current Washington-Hollywood relationship to Bill Clinton. Candidate Clinton broke the traditional Sunday-morning political pundit mold in 1992 when he played the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show."
"The line has blurred dramatically by candidates sidling up to talk show hosts," she said. "Why? Because a lot of voters tend to get their political information from late-night talk shows. Why? Because a lot of women listen to what Oprah has to say. (They) watch 'Oprah' but don't watch debates."
Lieberman calls on Hollywood
The campaign spotlight has also focused on Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and his history of frequent and vocal criticisms of Hollywood's products and policies.
Lieberman traveled to Hollywood last December to argue his case directly to Hollywood executives, saying it's not a case of censorship, but better citizenship.
"We are specifically appealing to the folks in the entertainment industry -- not just motion pictures, but TV, video games, records -- adopt a voluntary code of conduct," he said. "We don't ever want to regulate this by law, but draw some lines as we used to do, over which you won't go to make a buck because you'll decide it's just not good for society."
The focus on Hollywood was also a topic during the vice-presidential debate, as Dick Cheney gently rebuked Joe Lieberman for allowing the issue of violence in the media to take what he called "a back seat" to the campaign.
"I like the old Joe Lieberman better than the new Joe Lieberman," he said.
Senator Lieberman countered, and said he has been a consistent crusader who's always supported America's parents in what he called a "competition" they feel they're in with Hollywood to raise their own kids.
Studios answer to Washington
In August, the Federal Trade Commission released results of a year-long examination into the marketing practices of the entertainment industry, originally requested by Senators Lieberman and Bob McCain. The report found that movie studios advertised violent R-rated films during television shows with predominantly teen and pre-teen audiences.
Studio executives were called on the carpet before Congress in late September. Senator McCain asked, "Why don't you just simply say that you will not market to children this kind of R-rated material -- that you will not market it to children under 17, period?"
The Hollywood Reporter's Dowling called the hearing "an adversarial set-up.
"The whole architecture is set up in an adversarial way," he said. "It's pointing fingers and defending yourself, and that's not a spirit of cooperation."
Political analyst Jeffe said there is a larger political context to the hearing.
"A lot of what is going on -- with the FTC report, with the bashing of Hollywood -- has everything to do with independent, moderate swing voters, with soccer moms -- with the married-with-children vote. Believe me, Hollywood is sophisticated enough to understand that."
While movie executives defended their work at the Senate hearings, they also pledged to work with the Motion Picture Association of America to do more. Studios are now trying to more fully explain their films' ratings in print ads and trailers running in theatres, and are working with theatres to check identification for R-rated films.
And even though the nation will have a new president by Wednesday morning, the issue of Hollywood's effect on culture is far from over.
In a letter sent to movie and television executives last week, Lieberman reiterated his concerns and talked of official sanction if nothing is done.
But Dowling said that the politics versus culture debate has gone on for years.
"The relationship between Washington, the government and Hollywood -- the film business -- has always seemed to be kind of rocky... so we have new people now, criticizing it in the same way."
Dowling said Hollywood makes about 450 new films every year -- movies that are a reflection of the society they entertain. And although presidential elections only come around every four years, popular culture is part of America's daily diet, ensuring that the Washington-Hollywood debate should be around for a long time to come.
Bush and Gore play politics on 'Saturday Night Live'
The Hollywood Reporter
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