What's a Parent, Anyway?

A new book called "The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children" is written by a liberal professor and features an afterword by a member of the Clinton family. So should conservatives consider it radioactive? At times it's wrongheaded - even to the point of shrillness - but it does have some superb moments. In the final analysis, it's a provocative read.

First, let's dispense with the Clinton angle. Young Chelsea took classes at Stanford from "The Other Parent" author James Steyer, helped research the book, and now contributes a two-page afterword to it. Clearly it's meant to sell books, because what she has to say is wholly innocuous.

Still, I wish Steyer hadn't included Chelsea because he unwittingly undermines a key lesson of his book, one which too many political junkies have not accepted: the issue of media sleaze is simply not political.

As a conservative, I can applaud much of what this liberal writes. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with Steyer when he states, "The loss of innocence at too early an age is perhaps the highest price that American kids pay in [the current] media environment...Our kids are bombarded with language, messages, and images that far exceed the most outrageous forms of pop culture we experienced...Innocence is priceless. It's an essential element of childhood and growing up. But today, [preserving it] is virtually impossible."

Likewise when he notes that "the media industry's practice of repeatedly calling [its] critics 'censors' is a bogus and irresponsible defense...It's ironic to see...criticism slammed as 'censorship' by those who always run for cover to the First Amendment."

Some of his recommendations sound simplistic ("Do not put a television in your child's bedroom. TVs should only be...where you can supervise what your kids are watching"; "Get children to think of media not as a constant presence but as an activity that they do 'by appointment only'"). They are simplistic. But when surveys show that 97 percent of parents think television is too violent and raunchy, yet almost half of them allow their children to have TVs in their bedrooms - they need to hear the obvious.

As long as Steyer sticks to commonsensical, non-ideological insights, he's fine. Alas, he slips into the political. A strident, anti-free-market bias mars "The Other Parent." For example:

"Let's be very clear here. Every time you as a parent or citizen are disgusted by what you see on television or hear on the radio or view in a video game, remember where it all started to go downhill. It began with these contemptuous, misguided policies that deregulated media in the 1980s...Remember how the Reagan administration sold kids and families down the river. Remember that our national values and many longstanding traditions of public interest and civic responsibility were totally sullied by greed and a mad rush for profits."

Agree with the policy or not, it's true that under Ronald Reagan, the federal government deregulated the broadcast industry considerably. It's also true that further large-scale deregulation took place under Chelsea's dad. But Steyer ducks under the higher pertinent truths, namely, that the salient reasons the airwaves are awash in vulgarity aren't economic, they're moral, and that those reasons are rooted in a philosophy that isn't liberal or conservative; it's libertine.

In a free economy, choices result from both internal leanings and external influences. In terms of, say, sexual behavior, it is clear that absent a grounding in a moral code, human beings are prone to indulge themselves. The media's shallow, sensationalistic treatment of sex - a treatment that easily predates the deregulation Steyer bewails - feeds, and thus intensifies, that tendency.

If Steyer is going to introduce the political, he must acknowledge that as a practical matter, increased cultural permissiveness was, in the pre-Reagan, pre-broadcast-deregulation 1960s and '70s, a cause that found its advocates primarily on the left, not on the right.

"A free, unregulated marketplace," Steyer writes, "will never care about kids. [Emphasis in original.]...Kids need special rules, special protections, and strong, mediating forces that will place their interests above the ruthless imperatives of short-term profit margins. The last time I checked, that was supposed to be the role of government in our democratic system."

On one level he is, of course, correct. But government regulation by itself will never be the solution and will in fact open a Pandora's box of new problems. Before the public surrenders its freedoms - and that is what regulation does - it should exercise its responsibilities.