Cultural Remedies: Root or Branch?

The aftershocks from the massacre at Columbine High School continue. Now it's the politicians' turn to step up to the bully pulpit.

In one sense, Washington's interest in the issue is healthy. What happened in Colorado is symptomatic of a cultural rot that is eating away at the moral foundation of American society. No topic should take precedence over this for our nation's leaders. Ultimately, however, this is not a political matter, and no quantity of government regulations will solve the mess.

Bill Clinton grabbed headlines by pressuring the National Association of Theater Owners into requiring that moviegoers who look as if they may be underage produce photo IDs before gaining admission to R-rated films. "When you drop [children] off " at theaters, Clinton said, "you shouldn't have to worry about your G-rated kids getting into violent or suggestive R-rated movies."

It was a nice gesture, to be sure, but an empty one, too. We live in the multiplex age: you buy your ticket at the door, then enter the maze wherein all manner of movie selections are made available. For the photo ID system to have any traction, guards would have to be posted in front of each individual theater to monitor the traffic. That would mean having to hire thousands of new employees at a cost of millions of dollars, which in turn would mean raising ticket prices dramatically.

But no one wants that, so we settle for the rhetorical nothingness that is a Clinton press conference.

In the Senate, Democrats Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Republican John McCain (Ariz.) have something more serious in mind. They plan to propose legislation mandating that the entertainment industry create a "universal labeling system" that would warn of violent content in television, movies, video games, music, and the Internet. Sexual content also may become part of such a system.

The sponsors' hearts are in the right place, but it's just another band-aid solution that might contain the problem; there's nothing there to really solve it. I'm with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who recently commented, "It may be worthwhile to stick labels on trash TV. But it would be even better to take out the trash."

House Judiciary Committee chair Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) is advocating criminal penalties for anyone providing material appealing to "prurient, shameful or morbid interest" to those sixteen or younger. That's tough medicine, but there's little point in debating the merits of this proposal since it appears to have virtually no chance of passing constitutional muster.

All of which might explain why some of the industry's greatest culprits aren't exactly quaking with fear.

Barry Diller's Studios USA, which recently ordered Jerry Springer to (somewhat) clean up his act, now wants to sell Springer's talk show. The likely result is that the old Jerry, bleeps, brawls and all, will be back. According to Broadcasting & Cable, it appears that "the [eventual] buyer's philosophy toward the show will be more along the lines of Springer's, which could mean the violence between the guests will return."

One potential buyer is Pearson Television, best known for "Baywatch." Pearson's Joe Scotti wouldn't admit his company is interested in Springer, but told Broadcasting & Cable, "We're always looking to add quality programming." If that's true, Springer's is the last show Pearson should want.

Another possibility is Unapix Entertainment, whose Dick Block feels "that show still has a lot of legs; I think Springer is a talent that still hasn't been truly tapped into." That's a frightening statement. What "talent" should we expect from a Unapix-produced Springer show? Nudity? Stabbings? Shootings?

Speaking of smut, Electronic Media magazine reports that Mr. Sewage himself, Howard Stern, is in negotiations regarding two more television programs: a sitcom for the FX cable network, and an animated-cartoon series. This in the wake of Stern's syndicated Saturday-night flop, which has hemorrhaged viewers and sponsors since it began.

Finally, two especially disappointing aspects of the post-Littleton uproar. One is that for all the discussion of this issue, not enough people truly grasp its seriousness. Then there's the entertainment community's paltry contribution to the debate so far. Quite simply, Hollywood is capable of doing far more to cure our cultural malaise than is Washington. In a way, it's an obligation. After all, Hollywood did far more to cause it.