Teens' Bad Choices: Who's to Blame?

Our frisky soon-to-be-former president can make all the overseas trips he wants, but he won't be able to shake what will be his legacy: he sullied his office and, more than any other person in American history, did more to rob impressionable children of their innocence. Let's face it: What was once topic material reserved for adults is now ingrained in the popular culture, with children.

And the entertainment industry, the most influential force in popular culture, is having a field day promoting this now-acceptable child sleaze. The evidence is everywhere.

The Teen Choice Awards, which aired August 22 on the Fox network, presented the results of teens' votes for their favorites in television, movies, music, and sports. The program illuminates how successfully Hollywood has marketed adult fare to the young.

In the television categories, the WB's "Dawson's Creek" won for best drama, NBC's "Friends" for best comedy, and the WB's "Popular" took what amounts to the best-new-series award. Each of these shows pushes the if-it-feels-good-do-it view of sexual behavior. Extramarital, premarital, teen, and homosexual sex is wonderful, if you feel like it. What makes it especially poignant is "Friends" star Courteney Cox Arquette's comment to the teens in attendance at the awards ceremony: "You guys are our most important audience." The efforts of "Will & Grace" to legitimize the gay lifestyle continued to pay off, as Sean Hayes, who plays the promiscuous Jack on that NBC comedy, was named favorite TV sidekick.

As for cinema, of the nine films receiving honors, five were R-rated. The teens' pick for the summer's best motion picture was the appallingly gross horror spoof "Scary Movie," which no less an authority than Roger Ebert calls "really...raunchy...[a] really hard R...There were genitals and other stuff in there" - indeed, in one scene a man's head is impaled on an erect penis. Other R-rated award-winners included the sex-crazed "Road Trip" and the foul-mouthed "Erin Brockovich."

Speaking of films not suitable for children, the Associated Press reports that kids as young as twelve are able to check out of the Free Library of Philadelphia, without parental consent, movies containing graphic violence and nudity. Understandably, this has angered some parents and city officials.

But Free Library president Elliot Shelkrot defends his facility as being "in the mainstream" given that libraries in cities such as Chicago and Phoenix have no age limit at all for checking out this kind of material. "For some kids it's quite all right, for some kids it isn't all right," says Shelkrot. "We want parents to be involved and to be paying attention," he adds with, presumably, a straight face.

The impossible ACLU, as it so often does, has weighed in on the side opposite common sense. "Given what [children] can see on TV and what they can read in the newspaper," comments Pennsylvania ACLU executive director Larry Frankel, "it may make the stuff at the library look pretty tame."

Go to Indianapolis and you'll find that an attempt by the city to protect innocent children is under attack. According to CNSNews.com, video-game-industry groups will challenge in court an ordinance barring minors from playing violent and sexually explicit video games. "What's next after banning video games depicting violence?" wonders the head of the Amusement and Music Operators Association. How hysterical. That's like saying the law prohibiting those under sixteen from driving is equivalent to "banning cars."

Meanwhile, signs increase that Washington is becoming impatient with entertainment-business irresponsibility. In the August 28 Electronic Media, a brief item states that "the FCC is leaning toward endorsing" a May proposal by four senators, including Joe Lieberman and John McCain, "that television broadcasters voluntarily reinstate a code of conduct." The National Association of Broadcasters' code, in effect until 1983, said that broadcasters had a responsibility to children and were to avoid "sensationalism" and "appeal[s] to prurient interests or morbid curiosity." Imagine how much of today's programming would disappear if such a code were restored, which is why it's impossible to imagine that Hollywood will accept such a code.

Moreover, EM reports in the same issue on "a potentially explosive report to be released by the Federal Trade Commission" in September regarding "the marketing practices of the entertainment industry...The FTC is expected to document situations in which marketers of movies, music and video games have woven violence and sex into television spots and other ads to lure kids."

The libertarian in me resigns. A federal crusade against the entertainment business, if carried out carefully, would have far more merit than its jihads against Microsoft and Big Tobacco. As far as reforming itself goes, Hollywood's window of opportunity is still open, but barely.