Culture Notes


Issue: "School shooting," Dec. 13, 1997

Do NEA artists have no-strings-attached rights to tax money?

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the National Endowment for the Arts can be required to adhere to congressionally mandated decency standards when funding artists with taxpayer money. In 1990, in the wake of the controversy over government funding of blasphemous and obscene art, Congress passed a law that required the NEA when making grant decisions to consider "general standards of decency" and respect for American values. Under the new provisions, a group of artists who had won grants before were turned down. The former grantees, including the pornographic Karen Finley, sued. The law was struck down by a federal court in 1992 in a decision upheld by the court of appeals. "Decency" and "values" were ruled to be inherently ambiguous and "impossible to define." The court will hear National Endowment for the Arts vs. Finley early next year and will rule on the case by June.

Birth of a new TV network

Broadcasting stalwarts CBS, NBC, and ABC and upstarts Fox, UPN, and WB will soon be joined by a seventh nationwide network: Pax Net, which will specialize in clean family fare. Pax Net is the brainchild of Florida media entrepreneur Lowell "Bud" Paxson, the co-founder of Home Shopping Network who has purchased 73 local stations across the country. These low-power broadcast facilities give him a presence in 19 of the nation's top 20 markets, reaching 83 percent of American homes. Of course, it hasn't hurt that the federal "must-carry" law requires cable operators to carry his stations. Newspaper reports refer to Mr. Paxson as a Christian who is concerned about the effects of raunchy television programming on the culture. "What is the No. 1 thing that has most negatively affected the American home in the last 40 years?" Mr. Paxson asked in a Tampa Tribune story. "Television." Mr. Paxson's most expensive antidote has been the purchase of syndication rights to Touched by an Angel for $950,000 per episode. The hit show that has won a following among television-viewing Christians will be the network's flagship program and will be aired every weeknight at 8 p.m. Mr. Paxson has also bought the rights to Promised Land and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and is pursuing other syndicated programming. In addition to turning a tidy profit, Mr. Paxson hopes programmers will take note of his success. "Maybe Hollywood will get the message. We don't need any more sex and violence." Overnight, Pax Net will simulcast the Worship Network, a program provider he helped found in 1992, which shows Bible verses accompanied by nature scenes and soothing music. Pax Net-the name is a play on Mr. Paxson's name and the Latin word for "peace"-is scheduled to start up August 31.

Gruesome Gifts

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Christmas shoppers are finding that they cannot escape the culture wars, even while looking for toys to put under the tree. As watchdog groups are criticizing certain toys for being unsafe, officials in the toy industry are contending that many of these concerns are exaggerated or unfair. But several groups are focusing attention on grotesquely violent video and computer games. In "Carmageddon," drivers get points for running over pedestrians, including little old ladies with walkers. In "Postal," players pretend to be berserk postal employees who get points for killing innocent bystanders, including women and children. "Listen to victims moan and beg for mercy," reads the promotion on the "Postal" Web site. "Execute them if they get on your nerves." Nearly all such games now come with ratings-the two games for the immature just mentioned are rated "mature." But spokesmen for the National Institute on Media and the Family pointed out that one "mature" game, "Duke Nukem," also sells tie-in action figures, as if adults play with dolls. According to the Institute, 25 percent of computer and video games are "ultraviolent," and another 10 percent "have some pretty rough content." While this means most games are relatively harmless, the others seem to be pushing to new extremes. "The bad games seem to be getting worse," observes Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who is active with the group. "It's as if there's a competition to become more and more gruesome."


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