On Monday, the president, the first lady, the vice president and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt, will carry the big stick of government into a meeting with broadcasters, to lay down the party line on "children's educational TV." As with the V-Chip and its government ratings system, the Clintons will give their guests the choice of "voluntarily" accepting a three-hour weekly quota of government-approved programming or facing severe economic consequence. This was foreshadowed earlier this year when Hundt threatened to block Westinghouse's purchase of CBS until the network agreed to a three-hour quota. This heavy incursion on 1st Amendment rights is unprecedented. Yet it has taken place with little protest from the media community itself.
One reason for this is that it is being done in the name of a good cause, in this case "the children." Of course, creating FCC-approved shows doesn't mean kids are going to watch them. And the Clintonites may not approve what they do watch. In a series of attacks that make Dan Quayle's comments on Murphy Brown seem benign, the first lady and the vice president have described one of the most popular children's shows on television as worthy of the devil: "Shows like the '[Mighty Morphin] Power Rangers,' " according to Al Gore, "project an image of violence that is simultaneously sugary and sociopathic."
Gore should lighten up. Far from being "sociopathic," the cartoon karate chops on "Power Rangers" are bloodless and always in the service of good triumphing over evil. In fact, "Power Rangers" teaches honor, integrity, teamwork and trust--values that Mrs. Clinton touts in her recent book, "It Takes a Village." The embattled executives at Saban Entertainment have been forced to respond by (what else?) stressing the political correctness of their show: "As a multiethnic group with strong female members, [the Power Rangers] represent positive role models. Regular viewers of the 'Power Rangers' television series see these teenage superheroes working together to achieve prosocial goals in every episode."
Sorry, not good enough. The first lady has marshaled her friends from the avant garde academy to make her case: "Experts have said that the show is devoid of any enriching value." And that is that.
If this were just a battle of elite vs. popular opinions about what is educational, there would be no need to worry about its implications. But the Gang of Four's media crusade is far more than that. Like Hundt, the Clinton White House already has shown itself willing to bypass the bully pulpit in favor of bullying--and it's not just cartoons they are after.
When former White House security man Gary Aldrich was scheduled to appear on "This Week With David Brinkley" to discuss his recent book, Clinton officials called executives at ABC, Capital Cities and the Disney Corp. to spike his appearance. They didn't succeed, but several other shows quickly withdrew their invitations rather than risk the Clintons' wrath. "Not since the Nixon administration tried unsuccessfully to block publication of the Pentagon Papers 25 years ago has a White House leaned so aggressively on the media," wrote Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard. "We're going to go through the exact same thing with David Brock's [upcoming] book" on Hillary Clinton, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry crowed.
The precedents set by a White House determined to see its own views reflected in the nation's media are ominous. A president summons broadcasters to Washington to declare that the state doesn't like the shows they air. The broadcasters capitulate. The president summons them again to tell them that the state wants its own approved programs on the air. The broadcasters chafe but are ready to "negotiate" again. What's next? There have already been complaints from the White House about talk radio's alleged antisocial influences. Are they going to impose a new ratings system for that? And who will be willing, then, to stand up to the president and say that this is dangerous to the very foundations of a free society?
At an entertainment industry fund-raiser in Beverly Hills for a Democratic candidate last week, one guest had the temerity to say he was voting for Bob Dole. In response, another guest gave him the Nazi salute, half in jest perhaps, but an indication of the way much of Hollywood regards Republicans. This incident not only highlights the entertainment industry's well-known political bias, but also indicates how out of touch the media are with their own best interests. For the thought police are not so much at the gates as in the White House.