Erstwhile scorn now forgotten

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 8/18/2000

OS ANGELES - Hollywood is famous for creating happy endings, and that's how Senator Joseph Lieberman, known for his moral crusade against the entertainment industry's ''toxic culture,'' wrapped up his visit here yesterday.

The drama that might have been - the newly minted vice presidential candidate threatening to sanction movie moguls, who generously fund the Democratic Party, if they don't clean up their act - didn't make it into production for the Democratic National Convention.

William Bennett, one of Lieberman's Washington allies in attacking Hollywood's exploitation of sex and violence, said he was disappointed that the passionate rhetoric and stinging critiques of ''the old Joe'' were missing from his convention address Wednesday night.

''Joe is getting incredible pressure from the campaign,'' said Bennett, a Republican and former education secretary. ''The Gore people are saying, `Fall in line' on the issues. He should acknowledge Al Gore, the head of the ticket, speaks for the party. But what he can't do is compromise his core convictions.''

Lieberman made no specific mention of Hollywood in his 30-minute speech Wednesday night at the Staples Center. He did praise Gore and his wife, Tipper, for leading ''a crusade to renew the moral center of this nation'' and said Gore ''believes, as I do, that no parent in America should be forced to compete with popular culture to raise their children.''

However, the Connecticut senator was a no-show for at least two forums where he had been slated to address the issue of media violence. In rounds of meetings with delegates, he did not mention his repeated efforts to reform the entertainment industry through persuasion or legislation.

No senator has sent chills through Hollywood the way Lieberman has, and many people believed Gore was bold for putting a man with an uncompromising moral voice on the ticket.

Last year, Lieberman threatened, ''If the entertainment industry continues to market death and degradation to our children and continues to pay no heed to the genuine bloodshed staining our communities, then one way or the other the government will act.''

Lieberman sponsored a Senate bill to make the networks adopt a uniform rating system. He worked with Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Malden, to require V-chips in televisions so parents can block offensive programs. He wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate entertainment companies' marketing of violent products to children, and this spring he asked the Federal Communications Commission to determine whethr local broadcasters were programming in the public interest.

He held the Senate's first hearing on video-game violence, and he annually teams up with Bennett to bestow a ''Silver Sewer'' award on the worst ''cultural polluters.'' Last year, the Fox Network received it for some of its prime-time shows. Lieberman also worked with Bennett and others to get Time Warner Inc. to drop a gangsta-rap record label.

''Joe has been central in this debate from the beginning,'' Markey said. ''He has this intangible quality of moral authority that he brings to every press conference or gathering to discuss the influence of the media on children and our country, and that is what makes him a leader.''

Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said he could not confirm published reports that Gore had called Hollywood studio heads, including Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen of DreamWorks SKG, to assure them the Democratic ticket meant them no harm. Even if Gore called, Hattaway said, it would not be to harangue them to damp down their criticism of his running mate.

Indeed, there may be private grumbling, but the industry's public reaction to Lieberman generally has been warm and positive. ''We're all on the same program,'' Markey remarked this week to actors and producers who are part of the Creative Coalition, a Hollywood watchdog group against government censorship. ''We all love Lieberman. ''

William Baldwin, the actor who heads the coalition, said Markey was right. ''I don't think there is anybody here who doesn't agree with Lieberman'' that there is too much gratuitous sex and mayhem in the media.

''His isn't a First Amendment issue,'' Baldwin said. ''It is all about how legislators and educators and parents and show business people can work together to protect our children.''

Baldwin said he disagreed with Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who initially warned that the vice-presidential nominee could pose a threat to the industry. Valenti left the Democratic convention at midweek and told his spokesman that he would no longer comment on Lieberman.

Critics say Hollywood has a double standard: Its leaders were brutal when Vice President Dan Quayle called for stronger family values on television, but they have blunted their criticism of Lieberman, because they are liberals who support the Democratic Party.

Celebrities, including Barbra Streisand and Maria Shriver, rolled out the red carpet this week, hosting parties that feted or raised funds for the party. One star-studded benefit raised $1 million for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign.

According to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, the entertainment industry has contributed $50 million to Democrats since 1991. Gore has netted almost $900,000 from Hollywood for his presidential campaign, compared to almost $700,000 for Bush.

Alan Solomont of Weston, a major party fund-raiser, said Lieberman is a nonissue in Hollywood, because Democrats here have a broader agenda.

''There is no ambiguity about their support for the party,'' Solomont said. ''They have a progressive view of the world, and they like what the Democratic Party stands for.''

According to the platform adopted this week, the party stands for ''responsible entertainment.''

''The entertainment industry must accept more responsibility and exercise more self-restraint by strictly enforcing movie ratings, by taking a close look at violence in its own advertising, and by determining whether the ratings systems are allowing too many children to be exposed to too much violence and cruelty,'' the platform says.

Montel Williams, the television talk-show host, agreed that Hollywood has to police itelf, but he said that Lieberman's call for regulation is ''a very scary thing.''

''If anybody comes to me and says we need to pass laws and put rules and regulations in place to control the industry, then I am afraid of the message that person is sending out,'' Williams said. ''I'll make a decision about Lieberman when I hear more about him.''

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst of California politics, doubts Hollywood will get a serious scolding in the Democrats' campaign.

''You don't need to bash Hollywood to get your point across,'' Jeffe said. ''And this week, being in the heart of the entertainment industry, it almost would have been impolite.''