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Movies, CDs and a cynical game of lies and money


WE SUSPECTED our crafty kids were sneaking into R-rated movies the minute we dropped them off at the multiplex.

We figured they were playing M-rated video games at a friend's house.

And we knew if we listened carefully to the lyrics in all their songs, we wouldn't like what we heard.

Parents know what they are up against when it comes to screening their children's entertainment.

At least we thought we did.

Until the Federal Trade Commission report last week, we didn't know - not for sure, anyway - that the entertainment giants that voluntarily offered parents an age-based ratings system were simultaneously targeting underage kids.

The movie people. The video game people. The music people. They have proved to be more ingenious than the kids, telling parents what we want to hear and then saying something else entirely to our kids.

And they talk to them out of our earshot: at the malls, at clothing stores, at sporting events, on TV, in teen magazines. At driver's ed classes, for heaven's sake.

They hand out free tickets to the Girl Scouts. They buy advertising time on local stations when the networks say no. They buy ads in magazines that are distributed only in high schools.

And, according to FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky, it isn't just a few industry bad apples. "It is pervasive and aggressive," he said.

Why we ever trusted the entertainment industry is a mystery to me.

These are the guys who produced "The Cell," a movie that features pop princess Jennifer Lopez and every atrocity known to human history. They produce CDs by Eminem, with lyrics so violently anti-woman that his own wife left him and his mother is suing him for defamation. And they sell video games in which players with the most skill are rewarded with a view of topless dancers with the option of slipping them money or blowing them to bits with a huge gun.

Did we expect these guys to be straight with us? Did we expect them to tell parents the truth when billions in allowance money is up for grabs?

Despite what President Clinton expected to learn when he commissioned this FTC report in the wake of killings at Columbine High School, it is not clear that violent, sexualized media causes such calamities. No one understands the way entertainment works on the human mind.

There is little doubt, however, that this stuff isn't good for kids. The report concludes that, at the very least, exposing children to violent entertainment desensitizes them to their own aggressive behavior and the violent behavior of others.

But, as in anything, there are degrees and shades of gray in all these entertainment media, and the only ones who can decide - who should decide - what children should see and at what age are that child's parents. That entertainment executives should offer parents guidance with one hand and slip our children free passes to R-rated movies with the other is as cynical as anything the tobacco industry has ever been accused of doing.

The entertainment industry said it would give us the information we need to make choices for our families while its own internal documents candidly lay out a strategy to get to our youngest children. They went after our 10-year-olds using the same brand-loyalty strategy the tobacco industry used: Get them when they are young, and they will be yours for life.

This fight isn't about the content of movies, games and song lyrics. Murder and mayhem have been the subject of entertainment from the Greeks to "The Sopranos." Each generation since Adam and Eve has told the next that its taste is morally inferior.

There is no universal standard for garbage any more than there is one for art, and politicians will never be able to write those rules.

This isn't even about the ratings systems. According to the report, parents think the rating systems are pretty good, and they use them.

This is about the marketing of movies, games and music. This is about the duplicitous targeting of our most vulnerable citizens by a rich and powerful industry whose favorite territory includes the human mind and the human heart.

Good parents - effective, successful parents - do two things well, most of the time.

Number one, they don't lose power struggles with their kids. Our children have every right to argue with us about the movies we let them see and the games we let them buy, but they shouldn't often win.

And number two, successful parents supervise their children, protecting them from physical danger as well as shielding them from emotional wounds.

But we need help to do that in this complex culture.

We thought we were getting it. We now know what some of us have suspected. The self-regulation of the entertainment industry is not just vague and minimal, it is a cover for what is really going on.

We are on our own.

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