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Hollywood, government face off over violence in media

The US Government is trying to find out if violent movies like "The Matrix" are being marketed to children

Web posted on: Wednesday, June 30, 1999 5:41:13 PM EDT

From Correspondent Sherri Sylvester

(CNN) -- As the nation still struggles to understand recent school shootings in such places as Littleton and Jonesboro, Hollywood and Washington are readying for battle over violence in films.

In Washington, the federal government is mounting an investigation into whether the entertainment industry irresponsibly sells violence to kids. Hollywood is a big target. The probe by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Justice Department includes the power to subpoena studio documents and studio chiefs.

President Bill Clinton ordered the study in a June 1 news conference.

"Our children are being fed a dependable daily dose of violence, and it sells," Clinton said. "Kids steeped in the culture of violence do become desensitized to it and more capable of committing it ... I have strongly urged people in the entertainment industry to consider the consequences of what they create and how they advertise it."

In Hollywood, some industry officials are preparing a defense in the name of First Amendment rights. The Directors Guild of America voted Saturday to lobby against legislative restrictions and to provide legal help to directors who become targets of what the guild members termed "government intrusion."

"I think Washington ought to keep its nose out of anything that's creative."

-- Jack Valenti, chairman and CEO, Motion Picture Association of America

But not everyone in the industry shares that view.

The debate is reminiscent of the "tobacco wars" that have raged in recent years -- at least, according to lawmakers who are targeting Hollywood and how they market films.

"We are in fact treating violent media like tobacco, and other products that pose a risk to our children," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut.

But the powers in Hollywood are resistant to the idea of their creations being controlled by the government. Jack Valenti, who heads the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), is meeting privately with many in the entertainment industry to counter the attacks.

"Movies can't be treated like cigarettes or products, because they're not," he says. "They're First Amendment-embraced and First Amendment-protected. I think Washington ought to keep its nose out of anything that's creative."

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Lines from the players

Comments by some others in the film industry illustrate the breadth of thoughts on the issue.

  • Spike Lee, director: "The film and TV industries are being used as a scapegoat for what has happened."

  • Terry Gilliam, director: "The real problem is putting guns in people's hands. We see the same movies in England and people are not being shot left, right and center."

  • Steven E. De Souza, screenwriter: "All films, all pieces of entertainment in general, can influence susceptible minds."

  • William Mastrosimone, screenwriter: "If it's possible that what you do may contribute to violence, don't you think that's worth looking at? Don't you think that's worth giving up a little bit of your sacrosanct First Amendment rights?"

    The debate is coming to a head in the most profitable season for Hollywood, the summer-film release period. And this summer, one effect already is in evidence.

    Theater owners and video dealers are pledging to card moviegoers for upcoming R-rated films. Behind the scenes, the title of the horror film "Killing Mrs. Tingle" -- latest project of "Scream" writer-director Kevin Williamson -- has been changed to "Teaching Mrs. Tingle." Disney reportedly mandated less violence in Martin Scorsese's "The Gangs of New York."

    "If it's possible that what you do may contribute to violence, don't you think that's worth looking at? Don't you think that's worth giving up a little bit of your sacrosanct First Amendment rights?"

    -- William Mastrosimone, screenwriter

    But there's hardly an end to violent pictures in sight. Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" recounts events surrounding the infamous "Son of Sam" killings in 1977 New York. "Arlington Road" focuses on domestic terrorism. Both are to be released in the coming weeks.

    "The fact that we make a movie about it isn't gratuitous," says "Arlington" star Tim Robbins. "It's our job. And certainly if you're a government that uses violence as a solution to your problems, you shouldn't be shocked when teen-agers in your society do the same thing."

    So it is that this year, one of the hottest features of the summer movie season may be the debate about what's on the screen.

    CNN Interactive Senior Writer Jamie Allen contributed to this report.

    Are U.S. schools safe?

    Hollywood aims to prevent 'government intrusion' after violent incidents
    June 27, 1999
    Researchers map out school violence 'hot spots'
    June 4, 1999
    Clinton orders youth violence study
    June 1, 1999

    Federal Trade Commission
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    Motion Picture Association of America
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