It's too bad John Kerry never had the courage to take on Hollywood as a presidential candidate. Then again, President Bush said next to nothing about Tinseltown's corrosive effect on America's moral values during the campaign, either. Why both camps ignored an issue with such profound political ramifications is a mystery to me.
Would it surprise you that Hillary Clinton is not going to make that mistake?
Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a new study on the media habits of children. They found that the bedrooms of America's youth have become multi-media centers, from the iPod, to the Gamecube, to the TV, ripe with raunch. Sadly, the children surveyed said most parents don't set or enforce any rules on media usage.
There, in the Kaiser spotlight, was Senator Clinton to lend her star power to the message as their keynote speaker. She noted she has worked on a bipartisan basis with Senators Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback and Joe Lieberman to get the federal government to research the media's effects on children. She expressed support for parents and even grandparents raising children and the need to support them by talking about media literacy and putting more emphasis on showing parents a program's rating after every commercial.
She effectively plucked out what may be the most disturbing study finding. According to the Kaiser study, 70 percent of teens between 15 and 17 say they have accidentally come across pornography on the web, and 23 percent report that this happens often. "More disturbing is that close to one-third of teens admit to lying about their age to access a website," she added.
She even highlighted her objections to the "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" video game, especially how it scares parents when their boys are "playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them. You know, that's kind of hard to digest and to figure out what to say, and even to understand how you can shield your particular child from a media environment whe[n] all their peers are doing this."
Hillary is especially comfortable in squeezing children's media usage into her old, familiar health-care portfolio, including the message that food advertisers are causing obesity among children. She told parents that if they're concerned about an infectious disease going around their child's school, they ought to be concerned about the "contagion" of unchecked media. She suggested we may find "we are causing long-term public health damage to many, many children and therefore to society. If there were an epidemic sweeping through our children of some kind of SARS of some other kind of infectious disease, we would all band together and figure out what to do to protect our children. Well, this is a silent epidemic."
This stance gives Hillary great headlines, like this one in the New York newspaper Newsday: "Clinton Assails 'Epidemic' of Media Sex and Violence." It makes her sound tougher on Hollywood than the speech sounded in its entirety. Since everyone knows Hollywood is a major fundraising stop for Democratic candidates, her courage will be further magnified in media accounts.
Neither Sen. Clinton nor the Kaiser Family Foundation is pushing an especially religious or moralistic message in their public presentations. Rather, they like stressing the health message. Just say no to youth violence. Just say no to obesity. But they're not going to preach just say no to teen sex. They're for "safe sex" for teens. But everyone should welcome their voices encouraging parents to be guardians of what their children see, hear and play.
Hillary critics will be sorely tempted to dismiss all this as artful Clintonian political triangulation, with Mrs. Clinton very wisely and effectively positioning herself in the mainstream against the extremes on the question of unhealthy messages in the media. That is, I think, shortsighted. Of course there is political expediency in the exercise (and no one reads polls better than Mrs. Clinton, with the possible exception of Mr. Clinton). But this doesn't mean she doesn't possess a deep-rooted conviction on this issue. She does, and I suspect she has every intention of taking this issue to the Oval Office in 2009.
Hollywood's muck-makers are advised to see the writing on the wall. When Hillary Clinton is scolding you in the headlines, maybe it's time to shape up. Hillary's would-be Republican competitors had better take notice as well. She is successfully outflanking them on a hugely important issue she intends to make her own.