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Jewish World ReviewOct. 2, 2000 / 3 Tishrei, 5761

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Consumer Reports


Peddling poison to children

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
TWO AMERICAN INDUSTRIES have recently come under fire in the United States for peddling poison to children -- the cigarette industry and Hollywood. But the contrast in their treatment could not be starker.

Cigarette smoking is a vice indulged overwhelmingly by adults who are aware of its considerable health risks. It has long been illegal (as well as immoral) to peddle cigarettes to minors.

Nobody is saying that cigarette smoking should not be discouraged. But the moral outrage directed against the tobacco companies was always out of proportion to the harm caused. And that moral outrage is not duplicated in the case of Hollywood. In the first place, the motives of "Big Tobacco" (ever hear of "Big Hollywood"?) were constantly assailed. We were made to understand that greed had driven them to the point of seeking younger and younger new victims to replace those their product had killed.

Yet Hollywood studio chiefs, who pollute the minds instead of the lungs of young people, are rarely accused of greed. Instead, their pious invocations of the First Amendment and "artistic freedom" are taken at face value. When challenged, studio executives unfailingly point to refined offerings like "Amistad" or "Patriot" and ask whether we want to prevent those under 17 from being edified by such movies? Answer: It won't damage a child to wait until he or she is 18 to view violent or sexual material -- even if it is uplifting. By contrast, it does severe harm to permit underage kids to watch bloody and despicable behavior on the big screen. And by the way, the execrable is the far more common Hollywood product.

Cigarette manufacturers had First Amendment arguments, too (the Supreme Court has ruled that commercial speech is covered), but these were swept aside. Joe Camel, the critics howled, was a brazen attempt to appeal to children. Perhaps. But this was never proved.

By contrast, we now know with certainty that Hollywood specifically targets kids when marketing R-rated movies. One studio used focus groups with children as young as 9 to test sequel ideas for "I Know What You Did Last Summer," a movie about an icehook-wielding serial killer. The Parents Television Council released a survey showing that 83 percent of movies advertised on television between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m. are R-rated. R-rated movies are routinely advertised in theaters before G-rated movies -- causing many concerned parents to simply avoid theaters altogether and wait for the good films to be released on video.

When it was proposed that shop owners and other retailers nationwide be made responsible for ensuring that underage consumers not be permitted to purchase cigarettes, there was not a peep of protest. No one said it was the job of parents, not shopowners, to police their own kids.

But with Hollywood it's a different matter. Even faced with incontrovertible evidence that the major studios were marketing violence and sex to very young kids, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, told The Washington Post: "We're not going to change anything. ... This (tepid new guidelines about marketing) wasn't released today for revisionist suggestions. This is what we're going to do, period." When it was suggested to Valenti that theaters be required to post "checkers" at the entrances to keep underage viewers out of R-rated films, he declined and later huffed, "No avalanche of laws, no presidential rhetoric will help a child's morality if there is no parental involvement."

Actually, that's false. Many things combine to shape a child's morality. And most American kids do have involved parents, whose task is made immeasurably more difficult because of the sludge Valenti's bosses pump into the national water supply.

The contrast in the treatment of the two industries reflects our deepest convictions. A century ago, Americans were more concerned with the state of their souls than that of their bodies. Today, the reverse is true. Sins against health are regarded as cardinal; those against modesty, duty, humility, honesty and duty as venal -- if they are sins at all.


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