What are some things president Obama might say if he were to talk to the entertainment industry about what it has done and is doing to American culture?
He might take some inspiration from what Hillary Clinton said at an industry gathering in Los Angeles, in the autumn of 1999. It was not long after the school shooting at Columbine, and the 15 dead. Rocked by that tragedy, the then first lady and soon to be senate candidate called together her friends and supporters in Hollywood and, as one of them later said, gave them something between a little psychotherapy and the riot act.
The gathering was private, but a friend with a tape recorder was there. Meeting with Mrs Clinton were all the heads of the big TV and movie studios, all the titans and moguls. Harvey Weinstein was there, Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks, David Geffen, Rupert Murdoch of Fox, Sumner Redstone. Sherry Lansing of Paramount was there, and Amy Pascal of Columbia. Ron Meyer of Universal, Jeff Bewkes of HBO, Howard Stringer of Sony and Edgar Brongman of Universal also attended. They met in Michael Eisner’s beautiful hillside home.
And this is what Hillary said:
“I want to be candid with you, for candor is a compliment, it speaks of trust and assumes good faith. And I’ll never speak of this meeting and what is said, and I hope you never do, either. I want all of us to keep it private.
“We have a problem with our culture, as we all know – particularly those of us who are parents, and who have one night walked into the TV room and seen our kids glued to the tube watching something that is violent or darkly sexual or disturbed. Or if you’ve ever read the lyrics to the songs they’re listening to, you know what’s up. And you know we’ve all talked about this before, but I think it bears another look…
“Let me tell you my thoughts.
“First of all, I know what you know, and what any thoughtful person knows: Hollywood is always fingered as the culture’s central culprit, but Hollywood is not The Culprit. It is A Culprit. If all of Hollywood started making shows with no violence and no obscene content and no bad messages tomorrow, the country would still be in a mess. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
“But you know as I do that Hollywood is part of the problem. And a significant part. You make our movies and TV, and we are a nation that loves its movies and TV, that almost invents itself each day through what it sees and absorbs and internalizes from our media. You make the images that live in our minds, that prompt us…
“People who are cynical and uninformed say the only thing that matters in Hollywood is money, but that’s not true. I’ve been in your homes, I’ve listened to you, and I know money is not the biggest thing on your minds. What draws the greatest part of your daily interest is the normal mix of human concerns and anxieties – family and kids and workplace problems. And after that what claims your interest is not money, but status.
“Status trumps money in Hollywood. Status – the position of respect you hold in the community, your prestige. You want a high place. This is understandable.
“Status trumps money in a lot of places, of course. It does in politics. I’ve never been rich, but Bill and I have always been at the top of wherever we lived, from Yale to Little Rock to Washington. Everyone was proud to know us, and wanted to stand next to us at the party, because at Yale everyone knew we were going places and in Little Rock and Washington we had arrived.
“If everything in Hollywood came down to money then TV would be dominated by shows like ‘Seventh Heaven’ and ‘Touched by an Angel’, because those shows are popular and make huge profits. So if money were all, they’d dominate and set the tone, which they don’t.
“Where do you get status in Hollywood? There are a lot of ingredients that go to the making of it – fame is part of it, money is part. But I think the primary ingredient is having a reputation for fearlessness in creating your art – and getting critical acclaim for that fearlessness. You want to show in your work that you’re daring and independent, that you bow to no norms, that you push the envelope and have no fear of those right wing Christian fundamentalist know-nothings who condemn art…”
She said that shows that celebrate innocence have no cachet, that no one wants to be introduced at a Hollywood party with, “Meet the fearless maverick who produces Hallmark Hall of Fame.”
But there is, she said, another thing that might jeopardize one’s status in Hollywood: “Taking the wrong side in the ongoing struggle over our culture. You would lose status if you were perceived by your peers to be going soft on your First Amendment rights to free speech. You’d lose status if you listened to those who support what you call censorship….”
She continued, “And let’s face it, we always call it censorship. But you know and I know that it is very convenient for you to interpret it that way. If every attempt to critique is in fact an attempt to censor, if every attempt to persuade is an attempt to coerce, well, then, you’ll always have complete license. You can do anything, produce the most vicious and sexualized and nihilistic material, even demonic material, and send it out into the country. Where, as we all know – let’s just stipulate this – it does harm.”
At this your blogger must tell you this never happened. The meeting never took place. The speech was never given. Read on and I’ll explain more at the end.
“Let’s admit something else,” Hillary said. “It is interesting to me that you produce what you produce, and then take the greatest care to make sure that your children are protected from it. You buy your way out of the problem you help create. You send your children to the best, most traditional private schools, where they are insulated from the effects of your work. You have nannies who play with them on your rolling lawns, and make sure they’re not watching too much TV, and if even with this they develop problems down the road, you have access to the best therapists and advisors. So your kids are protected from what you do.
“And this is the great unspoken fact of America now, isn’t it? The powerful – the politicians and producers and pundits, the people who write and edit Time and Newsweek, who produce the movies and talk about them on TV, the executive producers and writers and political operatives – they all support the freedom to make any entertainment we like, they all support the cutting edge. But they make sure their own kids don’t get cut and bleed from it.
“But what about the children of the powerless? What about the children of the kind of people we don’t have to be with anymore, the unsuccessful? They aren’t protected. Half the kids in our country are growing up in a sicker place, with parents too young or damaged or unsophisticated to protect them. They don’t have the options of affluence. They’re coming home from dead schools to dead neighborhoods, putting on the TV, eating junk food while they watch people get killed.”