Congress' culture cops

National | Senator wants to know: Who lost the culture?

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

Premier Week in Hollywood. Network executives congratulate themselves for their "edgy" new programming. Critics dust off their favorite September adjectives, like "stale" and "derivative." Parents fumble hurriedly for the mute button as new obscenities are introduced into prime time. The suits at ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox keep a nervous eye on the overnight Nielson numbers. Will viewers like the bleeding-heart president occupying The West Wing? Will they put up with the groundbreaking smut of Action? Will even Mike O'Malley's mother watch The Mike O'Malley Show? But for all the breath holding and hand wringing going on in Hollywood, the most anticipated premier of the season will likely come from a very different source-Washington, D.C. Within the next few weeks, it is likely that a newly created Senate committee should debut, charged with figuring out who's responsible for the trashing of American culture. This fall's Premier Week could well be introduced as Exhibit A. The committee would look at broad cultural indicators, such as divorce and the breakdown of the family, and try to determine a reliable way of quantifying the problem. It would examine the role of the entertainment industry, which produces violent movies and sexually explicit song lyrics. And it would seek out examples of successful programs for reducing teen pregnancies, teen suicide, and other social problems. The committee is the brainchild of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of the Senate's leading cultural conservatives. The idea got a boost on Sept. 15 when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a reliable liberal, co-signed a letter urging his Democratic colleagues to back the plan. After several months of planning, proponents now believe they are likely to win approval to create the Special Committee on American Culture, as Sen. Brownback would have it called. Hearings could begin as early as January. "In the midst of unprecedented prosperity," wrote Sen. Brownback in a memo to his colleagues, "there is a widespread belief that we live in a 'mean society' where families are breaking down, parents are distracted, entertainment is vulgar (or worse), schools are failing, and children are more prone to crime, alienation, premature sexual activity, drug use, and cynicism." Surprisingly enough, Mr. Brownback says he received few objections to his gloomy depiction of America's cultural decline. "There's a growing awareness of the critical nature of this topic," he told WORLD. "Polls show that people are deeply concerned about the culture. There's a strong majority of the population that thinks we have a serious problem here." In a poll-driven town like Washington, that may be enough to overcome Hollywood opposition to such a committee. Publicly, objections usually run along the lines of "we don't need another committee," rather than "we don't see a problem." Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America and a leading critic of the committee idea, is typical: "There are so many different inquiries going on, what is the purpose of adding another one?" Mr. Brownback acknowledges that others are studying the problem. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating the way Hollywood markets movies to minors, and the Surgeon General is studying the link between entertainment and violence. In the Senate, meanwhile, both the Government Affairs Committee and the Commerce Committee are looking at different pieces of the culture puzzle. But Sen. Brownback insists that cultural decline is too big a problem for such a piecemeal approach. He says his committee will deal with cultural questions "holistically," in a way that none of the existing investigations is equipped to do. "What is the nature of the culture?" he wants to know. "How did we reach this point in our culture? And once we've recognized the problems with the culture, how do we change it?" He's determined that the committee not be merely a symbolic gesture-one of the infamous Washington "studies" that never reaches any conclusions or advances any solutions. To that end, his proposal includes a specific time frame (the committee will expire Dec. 31, 2000), specific budget ($500,000), and specific powers (most notably the power to subpoena witnesses and documents). One concrete result Sen. Brownback expects from all this investigating: statistics. He wants to see numbers reported for a whole range of cultural indicators, including child abuse, out-of-wedlock births, abortion rates, divorce rates, teen suicide, and the amount of time children spend in front of the TV. Furthermore, he wants to see the statistics reported at both the state and metropolitan levels, giving officials a more precise tool for tracking changes and identifying problem areas. States and cities could then apply effective, local-level solutions when problem numbers begin to climb. "We rarely find out how to change something in America until we find out how to count it," he says, paraphrasing Sen. Moynihan. Sen. Brownback points out that defining and quantifying a problem is often the most contentious part of the battle. When Congress first tried to create a Consumer Price Index, for example, special interests fought frantically over what items would be included and how they would be weighted. But once the decision was made, Americans quickly adopted the CPI as a reliable indicator of the cost of living, and government planners had a handy tool for keeping inflation under control. Counting teen suicides and out-of-wedlock births seems reasonable enough, but entertainment industry executives remain dead-set against the committee because they fear Hollywood will receive too much blame. Although Hollywood is sure to be a high-profile target in any cultural probe, Mr. Brownback insists it won't be the only one. "This is not about censorship," he said. "It's not about taking freedoms away, but increasing responsibilities at every level. Hollywood has responsibilities, but so do I as a parent." Earlier this month, the senator traveled to California "to meet with people in the entertainment industry [and] try to engage them in working with us." He says the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, Fox Studios, and other Hollywood groups were cordial-but not particularly helpful. "They were receptive to the discussion, but everyone continued to point the finger at someone else: What about violence on the evening news? What about the World Wrestling Federation? What about family structure? ... They don't want to step up and say, 'We want to work to correct some of the excesses taking place.'" With entertainment lobbyists working feverishly behind the scenes, the Brownback Committee is still far from a sure thing, but Sen. Moynihan's support is key. "He's a longtime cultural commentator," notes Mr. Brownback in explaining why he had worked for months to secure Mr. Moynihan's support. "He's the one who coined the phrase 'defining deviancy down.' We had extensive conversations about this, and he agreed strongly that we have great difficulties in the American culture today." North Dakota's two Democratic senators, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, have also signed on as co-sponsors of the bill that would create the committee, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has endorsed the idea in general. With bipartisan support picking up, Mr. Brownback hopes to force the issue to a vote on the Senate floor, where he is confident he will prevail. "It is one of those issues that will be tough for people to vote against if we can get it to the floor," he notes. Ironically, some conservative Christians, who argue that government can't legislate a change of heart, echo the liberal critique of the proposed committee. But Sen. Brownback insists that's not his goal. Under his bill, the committee is not even granted legislative powers, he points out, so it cannot introduce any new laws. "We could pass a law next week that we all love one another and we'd only have five dissenting votes in the Senate. The bill would pass by huge majorities in both houses of Congress, the president would sign it with great fanfare, and the next day, nothing would be substantially different." Instead of a futile legislative approach, Mr. Brownback says, "most of our efforts will be to ask questions about the state of the culture.... The way we change is by the millions of individual changes that people make, and the more you converse about that, the more of those changes you see. The national conversation we've had over the last several years has begun to have some impact on things like abortion and welfare mothers. That's what we're talking about: just raising the level of that national conversation." If the public tunes in, it's one talk show that could actually make a difference.

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