This Week

Issue: "Beijing Marches On," March 15, 1997

Good start, but what next?!?

What are we to learn from the Washington-to-Hollywood uproar over broadcast television's first TV-M presentation, Schindler's List? Plenty. The controversy began when Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) objected publicly. "I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program," said the congressman. "They were exposed to the violence of multiple gunshot head wounds, vile language, full frontal nudity, and irresponsible sexual activity. It simply should never have been allowed on public television." Rep. Coburn, co-chairman of the Congressional Family Caucus, instantly became the bad guy--even among his usual allies in Washington--while the television moguls wrapped themselves in a mantle of righteousness. The controversy has at least stalled legislation to force the TV industry to adopt content-based ratings instead of the current vague rating system. Right now that proposal is dead in the water. So what are the lessons? To begin with, the reason Christians should be concerned about nudity and violence is their moral effect. Nakedness and sexual scenes can provoke lustful imaginings and the mental adultery warned against in Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Displays of violence can also provoke sin, when viewers take pleasure in a vicarious fantasy of hurting someone. The nudity in Schindler's List was by no means sexually titillating, and its violence was not portrayed as something pleasurable and good. In fact, Schindler's List had a positive moral effect, creating in viewers a sense of outrage against human sin and compassion for its victims. Schindler's List is thus a special case. By making it their first uncut R-rated movie, the networks were proceeding with caution. And Rep. Coburn walked right into the trap. When Christian culture warriors react superficially, they only advance their opponents' cause. In fairness to Rep. Coburn, however, his stance against nudity of any kind on TV is not unreasonable. He was unjustly caricatured. Still, Christians in politics need to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. But now that the M-barrier has been broken--and to such great acclaim--it will be interesting to see what the networks plan next. Perhaps a "sensitive but disturbing" look at AIDS, such as And the Band Played On. Eventually, the programmers and audiences will wonder, why should all TV-M shows be depressing? And why shouldn't the networks be able to compete with cable and pay-for-view? At that point, the high moral tone of Schindler's List will no longer be necessary. Stay tuned. --by Gene Edward Veith

What will it take?

Despite a string of startling disclosures last week about possibly illegal campaign fundraising efforts at the White House, Attorney General Janet Reno remained steadfast against naming an independent counsel to investigate. First came Vice President Gore's March 3 admission that he used his White House telephone to solicit campaign contributions for the Democratic National Committee (see p. 21); federal election law clearly prohibits the solicitation of campaign contributions on government property. Two days later, the White House admitted Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Margaret Williams, accepted at the White House and turned over to the DNC a check for $50,000. At her weekly news conference March 6, Ms. Reno maintained that because the contributions were for the DNC, they weren't strictly covered by laws governing federal elections--and thus the disclosures do not trigger the independent counsel statute. The party committee also supports candidates for state and local offices. In between those disclosures, the White House counsel's office March 4 directed administration staffers to comply with a Jan. 30 subpoena from Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr for any information relating to 20 individuals or entities connected to the Indonesian financial conglomerate Lippo Group. The subpoena centers on a 1994 payment from Lippo to Webster Hubbell in the few months between his resignation as number-two man at the Justice Department and the beginning of a prison term for Whitewater-related crimes. The New York Times March 5 reported that payments to Mr. Hubbell came from sources other than Lippo and totaled more than $400,000. Those who paid the former associate attorney general, the Times reported, "were regulars at the White House fundraising coffees or overnight guests in the Lincoln Bedroom." The largest chunk of the money came from Hong Kong-based businesses controlled by the Riady family, which also controls Lippo. According to the Times, those businesses benefited from a $2 billion American-Chinese joint venture "that received crucial backing from the administration at about the same time Hubbell was being paid." The question for Mr. Starr is whether the administration orchestrated payments to Mr. Hubbell in exchange for his willingness to obstruct the probe into wrongdoing by the president.

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