Leading Jewish Hollywood executives and directors responded with a sense of shame this week to the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) report criticizing the marketing of media violence to minors. Reached by phone, they spoke with The Jewish Journal about how they struggled to reconcile their sense of social and moral responsibility with the demands of the marketplace. Many felt the challenge of balancing the task of self-regulation from within the industry against the evil of censorship from the outside. Others spoke of a more personal balance, played out against a highly charged political atmosphere: deciding how much of the entertainment industry's product their own children can watch.
Jeff Sagansky, CEO of Paxson Communications and former president of TriStar Pictures and CBS Entertainment, was outspoken in his criticism of the media for injecting children on a daily basis with what he dubbed "a very toxic cocktail of violence and general irresponsibility."
He pointed to a score of studies over the past 20 years that link media violence with violent behavior. "You can quibble with any single study," Sagansky stated, "but the net effect, if you read all these studies, is a direct correlation between violent behavior and the amount of violence the kids consume in the media. For 15 years we've been fighting cigarette advertising to minors. But I think this is just as harmful, maybe more harmful."
Sagansky called for a self-policing policy on media violence. "I don't believe," he said, "that any government board can necessarily sit there and determine things for us. But on the other hand, there have got to be very, very frequent reviews to see how the industry is coming along. Because we've talked about this self-restraint now for seven or eight years. I don't see any change whatsoever in what's coming out; in fact, it seems to be worse."
Even getting executives to speak about the issues as Jews proved difficult, as most of the executives reached preferred not to comment.
"One, they're a part of the system that propagates all this," Sagansky said. "And two, I think everyone in Hollywood is very, very afraid of government censorship. Which, by the way, they should be."
Sagansky mused that the best thing Washington might do would be to mandate that every executive in the entertainment industry be required to have their children watch "all the TV programs and movies and music videos that they're putting out. That would put a real quick end to it."
In fact, Sagansky does not permit his children to watch any programs or films with violent content. He and his wife screen every program beforehand.
Robert Greenwald, prominent producer and director of the new film biography of Abbie Hoffman, "Steal this Movie," also emphatically criticized the level of violence in media and called for self-regulation on the part of the industry.
"For me, it certainly is an issue of responsibility and influencing people with our work," he said. "I would like to think that in the film and television world we hold ourselves to a higher moral responsibility than the cigarette industry or the Firestone people."
Opposing government regulation or censorship, Greenwald stated that government could not create "the perfect set" of rules and regulations.
"But we can't on the one hand argue that in our movies we should depict somebody recycling garbage and say this character will affect audiences positively, and then argue that when we have a character who shoots people, that doesn't also affect audiences," said Greenwald. "It has to. I believe our work does have an effect. And because of that, there is a sense of personal responsibility that we all have to have about where we draw the line in terms of influence and profits."
Greenwald pointed to a moral schizophrenia in the culture that extends far beyond the entertainment industry: "It's not just film," he said. "There are decent people who make cigarettes that kill people. There are decent people, I think, who go to work for HMO's."
In his own home, Greenwald said that he monitored the amount of film and TV his children are allowed to watch.
"If it's excessively violent," he said, "I don't let them watch it at all. I'm very, very strict about it."Veteran film director Lionel Chetwynd, whose forthcoming movie, "Varian's War," is an account of a rescuer in the Holocaust, Varian Fry, also spoke out for self-regulation. "Regardless of what the FTC can or cannot do, the larger reality is that anything the popular culture can do to try and help restore civility to American public life, they should at least seriously consider and examine doing," he said. "As a First Amendment absolutist, I'm not looking to my government to cure society. Because the evidence is that it really cannot, no matter how well-intentioned it is. It's absolutely up to us. Only we can make the difference by doing the right thing."
But there is a longer view, one that usually goes missing in the politically charged debate over family values and entertainment. "A lot of this is in the eye of the beholder," said Neal Gabler, author of "An Empire of Their Own," an account of the history of Jewish participation in the creation of Hollywood, and the new book, "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."
Gabler pointed out that many gangster films of the 1930's that were once singled out for excessive violence now seem "highly moralistic and very, very tame."
Popular culture, he said, "is a kind of contrarian form. It challenges the status quo. I, for one, believe that when you really cross the line, the moral boundary, that those kind of movies, songs and television programs tend to be ghettoized and marginalized.
"There's a kind of self-regulation to all this," he continued. "And it all depends on where you set your own meter in terms of what you find offensive or not. Because popular culture is always offensive to somebody. It is always a form of rebellion, of outlawry."
Gabler cited Elvis Presley as an example. "Twenty years after Presley first appeared, he was singing in Las Vegas, and his audience was not young people any longer," said Gabler. "They were middle-aged types from the Midwest. And that's the nature of popular culture. What begins at the margins gets domesticated in the middle. I guarantee you there will be rap singers in Vegas 10 years from now. Their music will have become so domesticated that their audience will be essentially middle class."
Nevertheless, as a Jewish father, Gabler was less than sanguine about exposing his own children, ages 13 and l5, to violence in the media. "This is my responsibility," he said passionately. "You watch your children. I know what movies they go to. I know what TV programs they watch. When they're on the Internet, their computer is across the desk from mine. I'm not sitting there confining them to Walt Disney fare, but what I am trying to do is keep them from seeing things that I know are ugly and heinous. I do not want to raise my children to be callous."