September 14, 2000
Media Sex and Violence Hits Political Big Time
Sex and violence were shoved into the forefront of the presidential campaign by the shocking findings in this week's Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report on the marketing of violent movies, music CDs and video games to children.
Across the spectrum, Jewish groups expressed concern about the report's conclusions but differed over exactly how the government should respond.
However those differences may be smaller than usual because of one factor: Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Lieberman, an early and energetic advocate of stronger measures for combating offensive material aimed at children, has made the issue more respectable for Jews who once tilted more toward First Amendment considerations, Jewish leaders say.
"Lieberman has made the issue kosher for many Jews, and lessened concerns that this is a First Amendment attack by the Christian Coalition crowd" said an official for a Jewish group that has not taken a position on the media violence issue. "Now that he has a national platform, the impact of his activism on the issue will be multiplied."
The FTC report alleged that despite voluntary ratings systems, companies routinely and aggressively market inappropriate movies, video games and music CDs to children.
The study focused only on violence, but politicians were quick to bring sex into the picture by pointing out that many of the same products pitched at kids also involve sexually explicit or suggestive material.The report, commissioned by the White House more than a year ago, described industry marketing plans for pitching R-rated movies and M (Mature)-rated video games to children as young as 12, and advertising for violent films in teen magazines and comic books.
The findings quickly became grist for the presidential mill.
Vice President Al Gore, abandoning his party's traditional reticence on issues that skirt basic First Amendment concerns, gave the entertainment industry an ultimatum: change its ways in six months or face possible new regulatory action.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, accused the Democrats of inconsistency on the issue and blasted Gore for reaping big harvests of Hollywood cash even as he criticizes Hollywood during campaign appearances.
But Democrats quickly pointed out that Tipper Gore, their presidential candidate's wife, and Lieberman, his running mate, were among the earliest critics of the industry.
Lieberman, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is currently sponsoring legislation with tougher labeling requirements and provisions instructing the FTC to sanction entertainment companies that do not comply.
This week Lieberman was scheduled to make an unusual detour from the campaign trail to testify on behalf of the legislation at a Senate hearing. Also scheduled: Lynne Cheney, wife of his Republican rival, Richard B. Cheney, who was added to the roster at the last minute.
Within hours of its release, the Orthodox Union (OU) praised the FTC report.
Nathan Diament, head of the group's Institute for Public Affairs, said that even he was surprised at the evidence that the companies deliberately targeted young children.
"I'm hoping the entertainment industry will be shamed by this report into changing its ways - but I have my doubts," he said.
The OU, he said, actively supports the McCain-Lieberman bill, including its threat of additional action if the media moguls do not comply.
The OU is also calling for a companion study targeting sexually explicit material.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said self-policing by the industry is still the best solution, but conceded that voluntary efforts have produced disappointing results.
"There are real issues here that need to be addressed, and so far, they haven't been addressed adequately by the industry," said Jess Hordes, ADL's Washington director. "But there's also a danger that we could lose the sense of balance we need when dealing with First Amendment issues when you have this kind of hysteria."
The nation's top Reform group has not taken a position on the report or the Lieberman legislation. But Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the report reflected the anxieties of a growing number of Jewish parents.
"It's very unlikely my movement would call for anything that would be perceived as government censorship," he said. "At the same time, there are many people in our leadership, many parents of young children, who are very anxious to find some way for this to be brought under control that would not threaten our fundamental liberties."
The problem has become far more acute, he said, because "technology has opened up a whole variety of possibilities that were not available to us in the past; they have been exploited in many cases by those in the media industry for profit without sufficient consideration of their impact on the welfare of children."But he warned that the surprising emphasis on religion in this year's presidential campaign and the surge of concern triggered by the FTC report could push lawmakers - goaded by Christian right groups - to move too far too fast.
Even when Jews sympathize with those seeing stronger government action, he said, "there is a fear it can be misused and exploited for inappropriate constitutional violations in a whole range of areas. So the Jewish community finds itself in an interesting bind."
U.S.-Israel Talks: Round and Round
By now, it's starting to sound like a broken record: Israeli officials report "good progress" in talks aimed at enhancing strategic relations with Washington, but negotiators still haven't finished a job they expected would be done weeks ago.
U.S. and Israeli sources say that while there is broad agreement on the need to reinforce defense ties, there are still several major stumbling blocks.
At the top of the list: U.S. demands that Israel clear its major arms sales to other countries, and Israel's corresponding desire for a measure of input in this country's sales throughout the Middle East.
The issue has taken on greater prominence in recent weeks as Israeli officials have leaked information about how much money their country stands to lose because of last month's cancellation of a big sale of radar planes to China after strong U.S. opposition.
And Israeli sensitivities on the subject have been rubbed raw by the recent announcement that a group of other nations will get additional access to U.S. supercomputers, an essential tool for making atomic bombs."At the same time we're having conversations with Israel about limiting sales to China and India, the President is giving the same countries access to these advanced computers that will allow them to simulate nuclear explosions," said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak did "very serious work" on the strategic relations issue during their meetings at last week's UN Millennium Summit in New York, an Israeli official said. Lower level talks will resume in Washington this week. "There is a very strong commitment to keeping Israel strong and meeting new strategic challenges, but so far, nothing has been finalized."
And officials in both capitals decline to speculate about when that might happen.The strategic talks were also on the agenda of acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami during a scheduled Washington visit on Wednesday.
The issue is also bound up in the issue of additional military aid to help Israel meet the costs of security in the wake of the Lebanon withdrawal and West Bank redeployments.
U.S. and Israeli officials have discussed a number of possible aid packages, but the talks have been hampered by the uncertain state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Officials here say the administration will ask for a huge security package if a deal is reached, a much more modest one if the negotiations remain stalled, primarily to help with the costs of the Lebanon redeployment.
"Nobody's ready to give up hope for the [Israeli-Palestinian] talks," said one administration official. "But until we know if they are going to bear fruit, it's very difficult to know exactly what kind of aid package we should be discussing with Congress."
Exhibit Commemorates Soviet Jewish Exodus
It's been 10 years since the peak of the exodus of Soviet Jews, the culmination of a movement that galvanized American Jews and extensive efforts by the U.S. government.
Next week that anniversary will be marked in the Russell Senate Office Building with an exhibit on "Voices of Ascent: The Return of the Soviet Jews to Israel."
The exhibit of photographs and narrative text is being co-hosted by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), NCSJ (the former National Conference on Soviet Jewry) and the United States Helsinki Commission."It's fitting that we are marking this anniversary in Washington," said NCSJ executive director, Mark Levin. "It is a city that had the biggest impact in winning the release of these Jews. The exhibit celebrates one of the most significant events in modern Jewish history."