Joseph Lieberman

Joseph Lieberman (D, Conn.)

VTR Date: May 11, 2001

Guest: Lieberman, Senator Joseph


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Senator Joseph Lieberman
Title: Joseph Lieberman (D,Conn.)
VTR: 5/11/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And for all of the 45 years since I began this program in May, 1956, I’ve witnessed an unending stream of indignant public officials year after year, decade after decade, decrying the ever harsher content of entertainment mass media and their destructive impact on our national life. Yet on the screen — the movie screen, the television and home video screen, and now the computer screen– things have gotten discernibly worse, not better.

Indeed, as recently as September, 2000, when Senator John McCain’s Commerce Committee held hearings on a Federal Trade Commission report concerning the purposeful marketing to our youngsters of violence the media themselves had identified as basically off-limits to them, it was good old South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings who said, “Here we go again”, then counted off the many similar Congressional hearings into media atrocities over the years, leading one to wonder if as little would come of this inquiry as had come of all the others in the past half century … some twenty of them held by the Senate Commerce Committee itself.

Which is not, I think, an unfair question to put to my guest today, who when the FTC reported its appalling findings and the Committee, led by an angry John McCain, fired its pointed questions at industry honchos in September 2000, was very much in the public eye as the Democratic party’s Vice Presidential candidate … United States Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Besides, often referred to as “the conscience of the Senate,” Joe Lieberman has a long history of pulling no punches in excoriating media moguls for the ever stronger violence, more explicit sex and harsher language that they serve up as entertainment for Americans…young and old.

So that my question to the Senator remains: will as little result from this Congressional investigation of the media as from all the others? And I ask not only as one who has lived through and taken hopeful note of them all — alas, to no avail, but as one who chaired the motion picture industry’s voluntary rating system for twenty years … also, perhaps, to no avail. Senator, what’s going to happen?

LIEBERMAN: Thanks, Dick, for that very thoughtful introduction and question. Look, I’ve been at this for about eight years now, and I date it from the age of my youngest child, who’s now 13. She was five … I saw her watching television with one of her older brothers, 12 years older … they were watching “Married With Children”. Not the worst show on television, but raunchy, disrespectful. My 17 year old, I have to assume that we’ve trained him well enough to be able to laugh, filter it out, and not be much affected by it.
But that wasn’t the role model I wanted my five year old daughter to see and I began to watch television, talk out about it, talk about video games and movies, and it seemed to me that the entertainment culture was sending messages to all of us, but particularly to our children about sex and violence, and civility … language that, that were harmful. And that I had the opportunity here, and in some sense the responsibility, to speak out on behalf of parents who were otherwise voiceless. I will remember a moment in a supermarket in New Haven, where I live, where a woman stopped me after I began to talk about this and said, “Please don’t stop trying to get the entertainment industry to clean up its act. I feel as if I’m in a competition with the entertainment industry to raise my children. And I’m losing because their message is much more attractive and interesting for my kids”.
So, that’s how we started. It’s been, at times, very frustrating, at times I’ve felt we’ve made some progress. It’s a difficult, delicate area because in one sense I’m trying to be a spokesperson, an advocate … I’m trying to … if you will … and this may seem naive … appeal to the leaders of the entertainment industry, draw some lines, think about the impact what you’re doing has on our culture, on our kids. Don’t do anything just to make another buck.
On the other hand because I believe so much in the First Amendment, I’ve tried to be very careful about ever getting close to censorship. So the most we’ve done, through law, is to ask … is to require it, really, the television stations to rate their shows, to put the V-chip in the television sets that are coming out. Overall, I feel as if we’ve made some progress, but overall, there’s still a lot of terrible material out there in the culture and much worse than it was. You know, I would say to people, “I’m a child of the television age. I love television. I grew up in a house where Channel 13 was right there next to The New York Times, as the standard of excellence … you know with my Mom and Dad. And those standards have dropped on most of broadcast television. In this particular case do I think we’re going to see any change, to respond to your specific question. I actually think we already have seen some change, though not enough. The FTC, Federal Trade Commission, found very powerful evidence, just as you said, Dick, that the entertainment industry, movies, video games, records, were rating their product as appropriate only for adults, and then turning around and marketing in places where they know kids are watching or reading. Television … MTV, magazines that kids read, kids under 17. In response to the report, the video game industry, interestingly did the most. They were most responsive. They did what the FTC asked. They’ve adopted a code of marketing … all their manufacturers subscribe to it and it has sanctions in it, it’s self-enforcing. We’ll see how that goes, but that’s a good first step. The motion picture industry didn’t adopt a code of marketing, didn’t have self-enforcement in it. But they’ve adopted a 12 point plan which moves in the right direction, not far enough. Most significantly to me, three of the studios … Warner, Disney and Fox have, in fact, said they’re going to stop advertising where kids are dominantly the audience for R-rated movies. And they have done that. And we see that in the revenue … ad revenue reports from MTV, for instance. Warner and Disney are not advertising there anymore. So, I think we’ve made some progress, but the record industry had done hardly anything at all. And they’re the worst, and they really need to be, to be pressured. And this is why I put in legislation, a proposal, anyway, that the FTC be given the authority to actually take legal action against entertainment producers, who themselves … not government … themselves say, “this product is not good for kids” and then turn around and market it to kids. To me that’s deceptive advertising. And it’s not censorship because the rating and the production is all up to the entertainment industry. To ask them to be honest about what they’re producing and rating and to hold them accountable if they don’t. So, bottom line … we’ve made some progress, got a long way to go, this is all about the pressure of quarterly income reports for the big corporations. You know and I know that human history tells us that if you … if you’re trying to be cautious about making money, that usually sex and violence can find an audience. And, regardless of whether it’s really good for the rest of us and our kids.

HEFFNER: But then you’re dealing with the phenomenon that it isn’t just marketing, is it essentially marketing that you’re concerned about. Or is it the content itself. And I know when you mention content, the, the hackles raise and you think about censorship. But it is the content …

LIEBERMAN: Sure it is.

HEFFNER: … that disturbs you and disturbs me.

LIEBERMAN: No question about it. And here’s where I try to distinguish between … some, some say I can’t make this distinction, but I think I can. My, my role as a Senator and a public advocate, or an advocate for the public, which is really to appeal … to shine the lights of publicity on, on some of the junk that’s being produced and the effect it has on kids, on the one hand. And on the other, being a legislator. And when it comes to legislating, I’m, I’m not going to get involved in content, but I think … the studies are so increasingly clear that … obviously not every child who watches a violent movie or plays a violent video game is going to become violent. But the studies show that violence in entertainment has an effect on kids behavior. If they’re steady and balanced kids, it may have no effect, or it may make them slightly numb to violence in their own lives. If they’re vulnerable, it can, it can lead them to act. And in the worst cases, of course, it could lead them to act horrifically, as in the school yard killings. It’s quite unsettling, quite stunning that in most of the dramatic cases over the last two or three years of, of children going to school and shooting other children or teachers, that those children were almost hypnotically engaged in one or another form of violent entertainment. So, I mean, I think the case is out there and the question is whether the folks in the entertainment industry will act responsibly.

HEFFNER: What’s your bet?

LIEBERMAN: The record is, the record is mixed. You know I went out to Hollywood and met with some of the folks. I found the directors and the creative artists very concerned about this … wanting, wanting to draw some lines. Very concerned about the rating system that you used to be involved in, feeling that the R-rating … this is the directors and the creative artists … the R-rating essentially has no meaning anymore. Because … what is it … 70 percent or 80 percent of the films that come out …


LIEBERMAN: … are rated R. So it can be an R that is … it can be a real hard-core R, or hardly an R, and it doesn’t convey as much. And the NC-17 no one uses because I gather that it kills the movie … the theaters won’t take it if it’s NC-17. So there’s a lot of very encouraging agitation going on out there in the creative community. But, you know, among the people who are in the business side … as one of them said to me, who’s studio really has stopped advertising in places where kids are watching, stopped advertising R rated material where kids are watching. He said he knows he’s doing the right thing and yet, on the other hand, from the corporate executives above him, he’s under great pressure every three months to produce higher and higher profits. And, and that’s the challenge.

HEFFNER: And, of course, the writers, don’t forget, write the garbage …


HEFFNER: And the directors direct the films being made, or the television shows being produced in such a way as to get the larger and larger audiences. Now you talk about not wanting ever to get into the censorious …


HEFFNER: … area, or be considered a censor. But there certainly now is a new school of legal scholars … Owen Fiss at Yale, others around the country, younger people, who think there needs to be a newer interpretation of the First Amendment, which you I’m sure don’t believe is a suicide document.

LIEBERMAN: The First Amendment?


LIEBERMAN: No. Ahem, I, I’m very hesitant to, to go down this road. You know I’ve said to the folks in Hollywood when, when we’ve had meetings or exchanged letters … I’ve said, “Look, I appeal to you to take some action to draw some lines here”. You know one of the answers that they’ve given us periodically, “Well, I’d like to but my competitors in the other studios are all doing this, so I … or the other TV network’s, or the other video game makers, or the other record … are all doing this, I’ve go to do it”. So then we’ve said, “Why don’t you go back to the codes that used to exist in television and movies, where essentially the industry drew lines around itself and said, “Okay, we’re going to compete, but only within this lines of propriety and decency. Well”, they said, “we would probably be sued for anti-trust violations”.
So then a colleague of mine, Sam Brownbeck and I put in legislation which exempted them from anti-trust suit if they were getting together to do this kind of cooperation in the public interest. They opposed it, it didn’t happen, they’ve still not, not cleaned up their own act. But that’s the way it ought to happen.
I’m, I’m very hesitant to have anybody in government decide what’s appropriate and what’s not. Now, I must say that the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, as you know, because radio and television are over publicly owned airwaves, as opposed to movies that are privately owned, and records of course that are played at home. The FCC actually has standards according to which it can take legal action against those who violate them, go beyond what is … go into the area of real pornography. And every now and then you’ll hear, you know … Howard Stern was sued a few years ago, and his company paid a fine.
There are some very provocative lawsuits by private litigants that are now being filed against entertainment industry companies that produce products that the litigants, the plaintiffs feel affected someone who had an adverse affect … I mean in the worse case, I forget the state, but I did a Nightline show a while ago where a young girl was, a teenage girl was essentially abducted and killed in a satanic cult killing which, which went according to a … very similar to music sung and played by a group called “Slayer”, which is very aggressive, ultra-violent and to which these boys were involved, teenage boys were devoted. And they actually killed the girl. And raped her multiple times. They were apprehended and they’re now serving jail sentences but the parents of the deceased girl are now suing the record company that produces this music by “Slayer”. Two things … one is to hold the company liable for damages for the loss of this girl’s life. And second too, as a second element of, of the remedy they’re asking … to require that the company stop marketing this stuff to kids. So, there are ways in which this is happening. Now I just don’t, I mean that, that people are trying to hold the entertainment industry accountable. Trying to get into the matter of content and consequences of content. But I’d, I’d hate to see the government itself do it. I say to the movie people … to complete the thought … “I’m pleading with you to draw a line. I believe in the First Amendment, but let me tell you … and this is not a warning,” I say to the folks there, “behind me, as it were, if this doesn’t work, I fear there’s a next generation of people who are actually going to come and set up boards of censors to stop you from doing what you want. Because the harm is too severe to our society.”

HEFFNER: You say, “the harm is too severe”. Does that mean you see clear and present danger to our society?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I look, a couple of things … first, I find that people are very concerned about the values climate in our country. And even at times when the economy has been doing well, people have an unease about our country’s future because of their unease about the moral climate, the values climate. I personally believe, and my conversations with people, vindicate or validate this, that a lot of that has to do with the entertainment culture. That the culture is so pervasive and it sends such a message of “anything goes”. And, you know, the explicit sexual depictions on television, for instance, without or conversation without any description of the consequences, you know. Violence is made cosmetic. So I think that this is part of the climate of moral anxiety that the entertainment culture contributes to greatly. Also, again, just briefly, the studies do show, by the social scientists, not by the politicians, that the entertainment affects behavior. And we’re all citizens, you know. “It takes a village” to raise a child. A very loud voice in that village today is the entertainment industry. Louder, in many cases than parents or teachers or clergy.

HEFFNER: Going back to Fritz Hollings’ point … over the past fifty years this has been demonstrated again and again and again. When do we bit the bullet …


HEFFNER: … and do something more than implore people who say, “We’re not nannies, we’re not the nation’s nannies …”


HEFFNER: … “we are businessmen. And the business ethic … the business of America, famously said a long time ago …


HEFFNER: … is business …


HEFFNER: … this is our ethic, not to be guardians and nannies.”

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, well, this is a classic case of another old saying, which is that the market is a magnet … the free market is a magnificent mechanism for economic growth. But the market has no conscience and that’s why we have to appeal to people in the market to have a conscience. Usually the law comes along to create a conscience in the market. And that’s the problem here because of our fear of legislating because of First Amendment concerns about expression. I’ll give you another example … what do I mean? For a long time because it seemed easier and it certainly was less expensive, businesses were polluting the air and the water, because it was the easiest thing to do. Time passed, science, medicine, people began to fear that not only were they destroying our water, beautiful water ways, etc., etc., but they were hurting our health. So laws were adopted, laws expressed this value that you can’t do this, this is without conscience. The law’s going to tell you you can’t do it. And over time we actually created through the law an ethic where businesses began to want to identify themselves as “green”. Now that didn’t involve First Amendment rights, although there are certainly people who will tell you, and I’m one of them that the kind of cultural pollution that too much of the media puts out today has consequences that in their own way are as serious as the environmental pollution that we legislated against. And the question is whether in a free society where we, we want to give the benefit of the doubt to expression, we can find a way to draw lines before we do ourselves in. I’m not apocalyptic, I’m a optimist, but I just … Dick, as we’re talking, I just … somebody a while ago gave me a copy of Will Durant’s “History of Greek Civilization”. He has a line in there that says, “Nations are born stoic, and die Epicurean”. Now, that’s an overstatement, perhaps. But there is some truth to it. And Epicureanism means many things. But in one area, I think it means the loss of a sense of right and wrong. The loss of limits and that’s were we have to ask for more cooperation from the entertainment industry.

HEFFNER: I must admit that I’m puzzled that the fact that you say these things …


HEFFNER: … and you indicate you have to ask for cooperation from the entertainment industry, but you have here, and in so many other places indicated that the bottom line is the bottom line for the entertainment industry as it is for so many other areas in our lives today in this country. And in many other countries because we’ve exported …


HEFFNER: … not just democracy, but our marketplace system. But I asked you the question before about a clear and present danger involved in what you describe when you watched your then five year old daughter watching this material …


HEFFNER: … if it is a clear and present danger, haven’t we long since established room to move …


HEFFNER: … in the area of Bill of Rights, First Amendment considerations.


HEFFNER: Don’t we have to bite the bullet …


HEFFNER: … at some time?

LIEBERMAN: Well, certainly I must say that my own, and here I’m thinking of the Constitution … my daughter watching “Married With Children” is not a clear and present danger. It’s a … it gives her messages I don’t want her to have and that’s where my responsibility as a parent comes in. And, of course, we’re asking more responsibility from the entertainment industry, obviously we also need to ask it of, of parents as well.

HEFFNER: But Columbine …


HEFFNER: … clear and present danger?

LIEBERMAN: Well, look, there is stuff that is, that is over the edge. You know there are some video games … I saw a video game called “Soldier of Fortune”, a while ago. It’s … first off the technology has improved so much that the video games, which when I started this eight years ago … got interested in, were largely stick figures. Video games now, the characters and it looked real. And, in this video game, you know, you get points for going through a series of scenarios with a character and the more people you shoot the more points you get. But it’s not just shoot, they’re down, you go over and bludgeon them, you cut their head off, you fight until their limbs come off, it is bizarre and extreme. To me that’s over the edge. And yet, would I pass a law saying it was illegal? I’m not ready to do that.

HEFFNER: When will you be ready? What will make you ready? Four Columbines in a row?

LIEBERMAN: I don’t know. I mean this is, this is the problem. Listen, it is, in fairness, but not … I don’t want to show too much fairness … there’s more than entertainment culture that goes into creating a couple of teenage boys who do what happened at Columbine. I mean there’s something either in them genetically, or in their upbringing, there’s something wrong in the school that didn’t identify these kids as potential murders and try to come in with, with assistance to them psychologically. And, of course, there’s something wrong where they could gain access to the weapons with which to carry out that deed.

HEFFNER: There are all those things that are wrong in so many different areas.

HEFFNER: But now we’re talking about the entertainment world, if we can call it that … the world of entertainment.


HEFFNER: And I wonder whether the notion that we in this country adopted more than a century ago of moving from “buyer beware” to “seller beware”, whether that doesn’t have to enter into our considerations, more powerfully now.

LIEBERMAN: How would you do it?

HEFFNER: Well, I don’t know that I’d start with government.


HEFFNER: But certainly the whole concept of looking to outside blue chip, blue blooded regulatory apparatus might be tried …


HEFFNER: … and I don’t know that the Congress has begun that at yet. Somewhere behind there, there has to be the bite that does say …


HEFFNER: … if this isn’t done …


HEFFNER: … if the change isn’t made in real time, there is going to be a clear and present danger based, not suspension of our Constitutional guarantees … you and I don’t want that …

LIEBERMAN: No, of course not, and that’s what inhibits us. You know that’s why this wave of lawsuits, private lawsuits filed against entertainment companies, based on the impact of the entertainment may be a Constitutionally acceptable way to hold entertainment companies accountable where they hurt, which is financially. And in the near term in addition to all the work that we’re doing to try to badger them to require more information, better ratings, etc., etc. and perhaps a more aggressive FCC, when it comes to television and radio, that, that may be the most immediate way, through private litigation that we can bite the entertainment industry and shake it up so it may draw some lines.

HEFFNER: Unfortunately, we’re being bitten now by a sign that says our time is up.

LIEBERMAN: Oh, that went very quickly.

HEFFNER: It did.

LIEBERMAN: It was a very good discussion.

HEFFNER: If I could get you to stay and do another program, if you can, we shall. But thank you again for joining me today, Senator Lieberman.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.