One month after Al Gore selected media watcher Joe Lieberman as his running mate, the Senate Commerce Committee says it will hold hearings on a long-awaited Federal Trade Commission report that sources say will show that Hollywood long has purposely marketed violence to children.
The report's timing-and FTC officials expect the document to be released during the second week of September-places the issue of media violence squarely in the presidential campaign. "All along, we expected that this would, coincidentally, happen right before the elections," says an industry executive.
The Clinton administration, and Gore in particular, long has pushed the media to clean up its content. And Lieberman has been one of the Senate's loudest voices on the issue. The FTC's report, ordered by the White House last May, appears right at a pivotal time in the campaign.
Former presidential candidate and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), no avoider of the press himself, is bringing the matter to center stage. This time, it's Lieberman-and not McCain-who is trying to get into the White House. That could force Lieberman to approach the matter altogether differently. Sen. Lieberman (D-Conn.) often has jumped at the chance to testify at a hearing on this subject. But the Democratic vice presidential nominee may have to make different choices, and a Gore campaign staffer says there are no plans for him to testify.
He has many Hollywood supporters who will be less than pleased if he goes out of his way to make the hearing into front-page campaign news. And, as Lieberman told Meet the Press after Gore selected him: "There are certain things that a vice president doesn't do that a senator can do." Testifying at controversial hearings against a favored constituent is likely one of them.
Still, the issue plays well with the public, say observers, and it has bipartisan appeal. "The liberals like the 'no regulation' approach," says one lobbyist, "and the conservatives are ready to throw out the First Amendment whenever it doesn't meet their needs."
Dan Gerstein, Lieberman's Senate spokesman, says Lieberman will wait to see the report before he decides whether to appear on Sept. 13, but the decision will be dictated by his campaign schedule.
With or without Lieberman, Capitol Hill staffers expect the report to make waves.
"Up to this point, what we have heard from the industry is 'we are acting responsibly because we have these ratings systems,'" says David Crane, a majority counsel on the Senate Commerce Committee. "But if this report reflects to the contrary, as is widely speculated, it fundamentally changes the debate."
Sources say the FTC report will document for the first time that the entertainment industry-specifically makers of movies, music and videogames-purposely pushes violent products in places where children are sure to look. FOX and The WB, which target younger demographics, are prime media buys for producers of such movies as Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, say sources who have seen a draft report.
One source says the report is particularly damning because of the amount of evidence the FTC gathered.
What also remains in question is who will show up to defend the entertainment industry.
The sure bet is Jack Valenti, chief of the Motion Picture Association of America. He says that he has been invited and is "eager" to testify.