The Senate committee agenda said the day's topic was the system for rating entertainment for sex, violence and foul language. But a four-hour hearing Wednesday ultimately dealt with creative expression, government intervention and race.
And the most compelling witness was one who wasn't scheduled at all: Russell Simmons, the rap pioneer and founder of Def Jam Records.
Simmons, who came to Washington for the event despite being denied a request to appear as a witness, spoke up after his name was mentioned repeatedly during the hearing. Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) gave him permission to address the panel, a privilege rarely granted to someone not on the committee's witness list.
And Simmons gave him a polite earful. He told the committee that many in the music business were frustrated with fierce criticism directed at them since April, when the Federal Trade Commission singled out the music industry for failing to respond to charges that violent material was being marketed to children.
"I want to make it clear: Most of the people you're indicting here today are black and are hip hop," Simmons said. He hotly disputed conventional congressional wisdom that music by controversial artists such as Eminem and DMX has no social value.
"Some of the songs you may find offensive--protest songs and other songs--are actually a reflection of the reality that needs to be expressed," Simmons said.
The hearing, which was packed with spectators but sparsely attended by senators, was called by Lieberman, who is widely viewed in Hollywood as an industry basher. He has sponsored a bill to authorize the FTC to prosecute entertainment companies that violate their own voluntary marketing guidelines.
Wednesday's hearing, Lieberman said, was to take a closer look at how useful parents find the current rating systems for movies, music and video games. It was the latest in a series of congressional inquiries into the behavior of entertainment companies that have been under scrutiny since the FTC last year highlighted overt efforts to sell mature-rated material to children.
"We're talking about ratings," said Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the committee's ranking Republican. "But we are really talking about something bigger."
Thompson, a well-known character actor before becoming a senator, was visibly ill at ease about the hearing, rocking on his chair before making a lengthy opening statement about his concerns about the government's overstepping its authority.
Thompson questioned whether the hearing should have been called, discussing the conflict between personal distaste for some of what Hollywood produces and the belief that creative expression is protected by the 1st Amendment.
"If we can't legislate [ratings], what can we do?" Thompson asked. "Should we as a Congress use our bully pulpit? It's very inviting. But who will be the next group brought up before us because we disapprove of their conduct?"
Lieberman countered that providing a forum for concerned citizens was a valid reason. Another harsh critic of the coarsening of popular culture, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), thanked Lieberman for calling the hearing on a subject he described as "a great and abiding concern for both of us."
Brownback, who testified about parents' dissatisfaction with the current rating system, also invited everyone to a Washington forum scheduled for today, co-hosted by Lieberman and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), on the "impact of the explicit sexual material" on young people.
The impetus to consider the viability of a universal rating system came from the Minnesota-based National Institute on Media and the Family, which wrote a letter last month that called for eliminating the "alphabet soup" that now faces parents.
Laura Smit, a Maryland mother of two children, testified about the difficulties she faces daily in making choices for her children. Smit said that, even though she is well educated and actively involved in a parents' advocacy group, she cannot isolate her children from inappropriate material.
Her 8-year-old son, she told the committee, sang the words last week to a popular song about a woman who prostitutes herself to buy food for her crying child.
"When I told him not to sing those words, that they weren't nice, he just told me he liked the beat," Smit said.
But entertainment industry leaders--Hilary Rosen from the Recording Industry Assn. of America; Jack Valenti from the Motion Picture Assn. of America; Douglas Lowenstein from the Interactive Digital Software Assn.; and actor William Baldwin from the advocacy group the Creative Coalition--argued that universal ratings would solve nothing.
Rosen, whom Lieberman called "stubborn," stuck to her position that it would be hard for the music business to go beyond its current use of "parental advisory" stickers, which don't provide information about why the music might be inappropriate for children. And she took issue with the hearing, which she said had "the hint of government direction and governmental pressure."
She said creative expression, "no matter how provocative or offensive," was protected by the Constitution and "not subject to official review."