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Culture and the Collision of Arts and Politics

As a columnist for The New York Times, Frank Rich writes about the intersection of culture and news. His pieces -- often touching on politics, religion and the arts -- are a fixture of the paper's Sunday editions.

21:39

Other segments from the episode on June 1, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 1, 2005: Interview with Frank Rich; Interview with Tim Winter.

Transcript

DATE June 1, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Frank Rich, Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times,
discusses the intersection between popular culture, politics and
the news
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Frank Rich writes about the intersection of popular culture and
politics in his New York Times Op-Ed column. He considers movies and TV shows
that become the subjects of political and cultural debate and those whose
story lines reflect issues in the news. He also analyzes how the news media
reports on politics and how people in politics try to control the news. The
bottom line of most of his columns is the cultural and political divide in
America. Rich was the chief theater critic for The New York Times from 1980
to '93. He became a columnist in 1994. His column was originally published
on the Op-Ed page, then it moved to the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. Since
April, it's been published on the Op-Ed page of the Sunday paper.

What do you think of the expression, `the culture wars'? Do you think there's
a culture war going on in the country, and if you do, how would you define it
or describe it?

Mr. FRANK RICH (The New York Times): I do think there's a culture war. I
think--although `culture war' is probably a wildly inflated term for it, but
there's definitely a division about certain issues, particularly what I guess
we call social issues or cultural issues, and they almost always seem to me to
center around sex. So, therefore, that includes everything from abortion and
gay rights to so-called indecency issues in popular culture to even stem cell
research. It all seems to involve procreation or non-procreation or
something--involve that. It's a war--it's not a war in the sense that there's
huge debate about that. That's democratic debate and that's the way it should
be and that's always been true about a lot of these issues in the history of
our country, including, by the way, evolution, which also is now fitting into
this pattern.

But it is a war in the sense in my view--this is my view in particular--it is
a war when it does injury to people. In the stem cell debate, you see
it--very clearly it's a war in a sense some people feel that this research can
help save lives and other people feel that the very means of doing this
research destroys life. So that is a war when it gets to that level as
opposed to debating over whether or not we should see Janet Jackson's breast
momentarily on television.

GROSS: In some ways, the culture is heading in two directions at the same
time. For instance, on television now you could see "Deadwood" with more
explicit language than...

Mr. RICH: Yes.

GROSS: ...probably even "The Sopranos." You know, "Desperate Housewives" is
very much about the sexual lives as well as the other aspects of the lives of
these main characters, but also in the other direction, you have a movement in
Congress to increase the fines for indecency on television, to expand the
reach of the FCC into cable and satellite radio. Do you see it as a
contradiction that the culture is heading in both a more liberal and more
conservative direction at the same time, or do you think that those two are
kind of opposite sides of the same coin?

Mr. RICH: I think they're in some ways opposite sides of the same coin. In
the case of the way that television, for instance, is going, as typified, say,
by "Deadwood" on HBO, there is and has been continuously for decades now a
greater and greater desire for more explicit, for lack of a better term,
entertainment fare. That's been the drive and it doesn't seem to be changing.
And it's hard to imagine what is going to change it.

What's going on in Congress, I feel, is the other side of the same coin
because it's a political response addressing the complaints of a real if
minority constituency in this country that is appalled by the direction of the
culture, and congresspeople in particular feel that there are votes to be
gained, maybe there are even occasionally principles involved, by trying to
cater to that concern. But there are various ways to do it. There are ways
to do it that are clearly constitutional, such as making more information
available to parents--things like the V-chip or changing the ratings
systems--all of which make sense to me.

And then there are extraconstitutional ways to do it. In my view, the courts
will have to determine. I think it's definitely a bridge too far for members
of the United States Senate to think seriously that they can start slapping
decency regulations on pay cable, which is something you choose to bring into
your home and pay for it. No one is forced in this country to look at HBO.
You actually have to aggressively seek it and write a check every month for
it. So it's just hard to imagine that the courts are going to uphold any
strictures on something like that.

GROSS: Do you feel as strongly about basic cable that you have to subscribe
to but it's not a premium station like, say, HBO?

Mr. RICH: I'm against this kind of regulation. I don't think in basic cable
there is that much that's more offensive than what's on network television,
but it's probably disingenuous for basic cable channels to claim that they're
that different anymore from broadcast television, because the penetration rate
of basic cable is so high. You know, it used to be a third or two-thirds of
the country. Now I think it's nearing towards 85 or 90 percent.

At the same time, no--within the world of basic cable, there are tremendous
conflicts about what to do about it. For instance, some people are proposing
that there be so-called a la carte basic cable so you can just make the
decision that you do want C-SPAN but you don't want Comedy Central, and only
pay for that. However, some people on the right, including some religious
broadcasters, are against that because they feel they'll lose carriage because
a lot of people that now automatically get various Christian stations would no
longer want to pay for them and that would hurt them at the bottom line. So
in the end, business may rule more than anything else.

GROSS: Frank Rich, in one of your columns, you wrote about the controversy
after Nicolette Sheridan dropped her towel in the promotional spot that
preceded "Monday Night Football" on ABC. The overwhelming majority of
complaints received by the FCC about the Nicolette Sheridan spot were letters
that were basically form letters written by the Parents Television Council,
which is an anti-indecency group. What is your objection to form letters?
What's your objection to an organized campaign where you just kind of sign
your name on the form letter or on the e-mail? What's the difference between
that and writing a letter yourself?

Mr. RICH: Well, first of all, it's voting for a cause rather than a specific
event. It's scientifically meaningless. You know certainly well that most
people who sign a form letter like that objecting to a piece of television
haven't seen it. So that's part of the problem right there. It also mi--to
me, it distorts the political process. I mean, people have the right to do
whatever they want, but it becomes meaningless statistics. I mean, we now
know from the FCC that, until very recently, a typical year there'd be fewer
than a thousand complaints, from, you know, fewer than a thousand Americans in
the course of a year. Now it's in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Well,
it's not like the culture turned on a dime and the world changed and America
changed overnight. That's just preposterous. It's politics.

GROSS: In one of your columns, you wrote about what the past has to say when
popular culture goes head to head with a moral-values campaign. And you
wrote, `A moral-values crusade that stands between a TV show this
popular'--and you're referring to "Desperate Housewives"--`and its audience
will quickly learn the limits of its power in a country where entertainment is
God.' What makes you so confident that when popular culture goes head to head
with a moral-values campaign that popular culture is going to win?

Mr. RICH: Popular culture obviously, I should say, isn't going to always win,
but when popular culture truly is popular, it's going to win for several
reasons. I'm not saying, by the way, this is necessarily good or that I
approve of all salacious programming or anything of the kind, although, you
know, I do think that "Desperate Housewives" is fun enough. You know, it's a
soap opera, whatever. But the fact is that people in this country, if they do
glom on to something that they find entertaining, they want it and they're
going to pay for it and they're going to fight for it. And in the case of
"Desperate Housewives," the Nielsen ratings show that it's just as popular in
red and blue states alike, if not more popular in some red areas than blue
areas, and people are going to have it even as they may complain all the way
and say they disapprove and they disapprove of their neighbors watching it.

There's this tremendous hypocrisy about sex in general and pop culture
involving sex in particular in this country, in that no one wants to admit
that they enjoy it, and yet we know from the numbers that people do enjoy it.
That said, are there things that people would find revolting and want shut
down? Absolutely. And it's unlikely to appear on network television where
all they want to do is bring in as many viewers as possible. They don't want
to alienate people. So they seem to generally know what the line is and stay
on the side of it where they can get huge audiences and audiences that will
support them and buy the products that are being peddled on those shows.

GROSS: You're a father. Are you inclined to defend language on cable that
most parents would not want their children to see? I guess the question I
really want to ask you is: To what extent do you think the sensitivities of
children should determine what adults are allowed to see on television or hear
on radio?

Mr. RICH: I really feel that America's culture cannot be tailored to its
children. I do think there has to be culture that's healthy and nurturing to
children, creative and challenging for them. And there is, you know, a lot of
it, whether it's coming from movie studios or Nickelodeon or PBS or, you know,
Children's Television Workshop, whatever.

On the other hand, when you're talking about pay cable, there's no reason in
the world why something like "The Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under" or "Sex and
the City" should be sanitized for children. First of all, all cable, whether
it be a pay channel like HBO or basic cable like Comedy Central, can be
blocked. If you have a cable box, you can block any channels you want and
effectively. So as long as that apparatus is in place, as long as you also
have the right not to subscribe to a channel that shows "Deadwood" or "The
Sopranos," I feel that's a fair bargain.

And as far as network television goes, some of it is quite inappropriate for
children and I guess my own belief--and I say this as a parent and someone
who's raised two rambunctious boys who are now heading into adulthood--a
parent has to step up to the plate and make some rules and not default on that
basic duty of a parent, which is trying to help shape your child's cultural
lives, not just what happens on the television set or video game but also in
terms of reading and everything else. And it'll never be perfect because, as
we know from our own childhoods, we always could find--you know, I knew as a
kid I could find my way somehow to a Playboy magazine when I was 13 years old,
no matter what my parents had to say about it. But still, you can set a
certain standard that pays off and works a lot of the time if you're willing
to do it. To turn it all over to the government, I think, is a mistake for
all sorts of reasons.

GROSS: The expression `the elite liberal media' has been used a lot by
conservatives to describe your paper, The New York Times, as well as the Los
Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the TV networks, public broadcasting.
What do those words mean to you? What does the phrase `elite liberal media'
mean to you?

Mr. RICH: I think it's just jargon and slang invented to try destabilize the
press. The fact is that we have an administration in this country that is
very, very secretive and wants to present its own version of reality any way
it can, whether it be, you know, having this huge `mission accomplished' party
on the USS Abraham Lincoln or not letting pictures be taken of coffins of
brave troops who have died in Afghanistan, Iraq, all the rest of it.

A concurrent part of this effort is, I think, to stigmatize the press that
tries to not put out the official administration story. And so this
is--`elite liberal media,' to me, is just code words for people we don't
like--people who may not be Christian, people who don't automatically follow
the government's party line. It's preposterous on its face. First of all,
some of the so-called elite media, including The Washington Post and The Wall
Street Journal editorial pages, have been huge supporters of the war in Iraq.
It's hard, really, to discern any politics from network news shows. I mean,
you really have to work hard to see any slant from any of the three networks.
And the fastest rising mainstream elite medium is FOX News, which is
openheartedly in favor of the administration's policies and supporting it. So
I think it's all sort of a shell game designed to stigmatize, you know, the
established media outlets and try to undermine their reporting.

Now I can say that, you know, some of these big institutions, including my
own, The New York Times, have made mistakes. We had the Jayson Blair scandal,
but it wasn't ideology that drove it. It was other things, including poor
management and a rogue reporter, and I don't think that there's a political
agenda in our reporting or any of these organizations' reporting, whatever
their editorial pages may say. The Wall Street Journal is a very right-wing
editorial page, but I've always regarded their reporting on Washington and the
war and other things as completely straight ahead with no ideological agenda.
So it's politics.

GROSS: In a column that you wrote about the Newsweek story that it retracted,
about a prisoner's Koran being flushed down the toilet, you said that the Bush
administration is trying to pass the buck to Newsweek for the problems that
we're having in the Islamic world, for the negative way that a lot of Muslims
see the United States, but then you've criticized the Bush administration for
things it has done in terms of how it releases information and what you
describe as fake journalism that has fake news that has issued from the Bush
administration. What are a couple of things that concern you on that front?

Mr. RICH: First of all, the idea that people who are presented as bonafide
journalists or talking heads or reporters turn out to be on the administration
payroll to shill for administration policies has the effect of undermining the
credibility of all news. For instance, just this past week, I was looking
back a year or two when there was the huge controversy over "Nightline" having
a reading done by Ted Koppel on the names of Americans who had been killed in
Afghanistan and Iraq, and I discovered that one person who had written a
vicious editorial sort of stigmatizing ABC News and Koppel for doing something
disloyal simply by paying honor to the fallen was Armstrong Williams, who at
that time was being paid money--quite a bit of money, in excess of
$200,000--to plug some Department of Education policies.

That shows how the whole situation can be mucked up. Here you have someone
who's on the payroll of the administration pretending to be a disinterested
observer and, even if he wasn't paid to talk specifically about the war in
Iraq, is an attack dog against another and, I might say, far more reputable
news outlet than Armstrong Williams has ever been, for, in essence, its war
coverage.

All this stuff just muddies the waters and it all reverberates in a weird way
badly on the press, because while the press may be able to expose Armstrong
Williams as it did, it still, I think, for people who don't read the fine
details, who aren't obsessed with following what goes on with the media or the
news business, is just one more way to send a signal to the public: Just
don't trust what you read or hear because if they don't make mistakes
themselves and they're ideological or maybe they're in the pay of the
government as propaganda. So it all sort of plays into the same
destabilization of the image of the news media.

GROSS: Frank Rich, since you started writing your column about the
intersection of politics and popular culture, you've become a pretty
controversial figure yourself. I mean, you were always controversial in the
theater world when you were a theater critic. You know, all theater critics
are loved and hated depending on whether they're given a good review or a bad
review...

Mr. RICH: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: ...but this is a different kind of controversy. I mean, the people
who love your column e-mail each other about it and talk about it with their
friends and family and at work, and the people who hate your column, you know,
write in the blogs about it and say very bad things about you on television.
So what's it like for you to be in the center of this kind of controversy now?
I mean, what have been some of the consequences of it?

Mr. RICH: You know, I don't find that so much of a problem, maybe because
I'm used to it. You know, I was dubbed `the butcher of Broadway,' you know,
when I was a drama critic. I'm sort of--you know, I feel, `Well, if I can
stand up to the Schuberts, I can stand up to people who are criticizing me
now.' No. I mean, there are very few consequences. You know, when Mel
Gibson says that he wants my intestines on a stick to The New Yorker and The
New Yorker publishes it, and then it's taken up by FOX News, and then people
who've never read me or heard of me start writing me angry in threatening
letters to The New York Times, if they're crazy enough, turn them over to
security. But, otherwise, I think it's all healthy debate. It really doesn't
bother me. I don't think I'm so much in the center of things. I don't think
I'm that important a figure. I just like feel incredibly grateful that I have
a great platform as a journalist and have a paper that allows me to write what
I want to write. And I think I'm very lucky to have that and very lucky to
live in a country where you can do that.

GROSS: Well, Frank Rich, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RICH: Great talking with you again.

GROSS: Frank Rich's Op-Ed column is published in the Sunday New York Times.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Tim Winter discusses the work and goals of his group,
the Parents Television Council
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council.
He describes the group's mission as protecting children from graphic and
gratuitous sex, violence and profanity in the media, primarily on TV. The
Council has organized letter-writing campaigns to the FCC. The publication
Media Week reported, based in files released through the Freedom of
Information Act, that nearly 100 percent of the complaints to the FCC in the
year 2003 were from the Council. The Council takes credit for leading the
charge against Janet Jackson's Super Bowl halftime appearance. The Council
currently has an e-mail campaign against the hamburger chain Carl's Jr. in
protest against its Paris Hilton ad. The Parents Television Council was
founded by Brent Bozell, who also founded the Media Research Center, a
watchdog group that monitors the press for liberal bias. I asked Tim Winter
what he considers to be the biggest offenders now on television.

Mr. TIM WINTER (Parents Television Council): Right now it is primarily the
expanded basic cable networks we see as the most egregious in terms of pumping
real graphic and gratuitous content in front of American families, and, you
know, the broadcast airwaves are public property. The laws protect families
and children during certain times of the day when children are most likely to
be in the audience, and we think that those FCC rules as mandated by Congress
are reasonable. It doesn't prohibit content from being broadcast. It just
requires that the real most graphic content be aired after the time of day
when most kids are asleep.

Now cable is different. Cable does not have the same decency standard, but
what these cable companies are forcing families to do is not only to subscribe
to these graphic channels but actually pay for these channels if--for example,
I have a young daughter. She loves the Disney Channel. In order to allow her
to watch the Disney Channel, I am forced also to subscribe and pay for MTV, FX
and a number of other very graphic networks. This is what we see as extremely
egregious. This is what we believe is probably the largest offender right now
in terms of filth being poured into our living rooms. It is these basic cable
networks that have this extortionlike business practice, forcing me and tens
of millions of families around the country to pay for their filth.

GROSS: So if you were able to subscribe to cable a la carte and just pay for
the basic cable stations you wanted and not pay for the stations that you
didn't want in your home, would that satisfy your group?

Mr. WINTER: That certainly satisfies the cable aspect of what we're trying
to do. By not underwriting the filth, we think that two things are met.
Families are free, able to turn on their televisions without fear of being
offended and bombarded, and secondly, it protects the rights of those who
choose to watch that kind of material, that they certainly have their
constitutional right to do so and a la carte really, I think, satisfies both
sides of the equation there.

GROSS: Frank Rich mentioned that he understands that some of the Christian
networks are opposed to the a la carte ordering of basic cable because they're
afraid that they wouldn't get into as many homes, that a lot of people
wouldn't pay for them.

Mr. WINTER: Every cable network...

GROSS: Have you been finding that to be true?

Mr. WINTER: Well, we find that every cable network is afraid of that. Every
cable network is granted this special business process which no other industry
provides which is forcing customers to subscribe and pay for content they
don't want, whether it's a religious broadcast or MTV or FX or any of these
other networks. All cable networks are benefited by this.

GROSS: Now Congress is considering several things right now. One is that the
FCC would have the right to regulate cable as well as broadcasting. It was
always understood that the FCC regulated the airwaves because there were a
limited number of stations that could exist on the airwaves and the airwaves
belonged to the public, therefore, they were regulated by the government. And
cable was considered to come outside of the jurisdiction of the FCC because
first of all it wasn't limited to just, like, a few stations like broadcast
had been and it wasn't using the public airwaves. Would you like to see cable
regulated by the FCC in the same way that broadcast TV is?

Mr. WINTER: No. Actually we would prefer for--again, the a la carte
solution really solves the issue pretty comprehensively, but what we would say
is this. If the cable industry refuses to let the market really decide here,
if the cable industry refuses, as they have continued to refuse, to allow this
a la carte, this cable choice alternative for families, for its subscribers,
then I think they should have the same level playing field as the
broadcasters. I think that why should on your remote control channel five
have a certain set of legal guidelines and channel six has a different set of
legal guidelines? For a child with a remote control in his or her hand, it
makes no difference to that child, and again there's a perfect solution. If
the cable industry in order to protect its billions of dollars of revenue
refuses to allow this simple commonsensical solution, then I think at least
the basic and expanded basic cable networks should be brought within the same
decency standards as broadcast.

No, we're not talking about the HBOs of the world. Those are, you know,
premium subscription channels. What we're talking about here is these basic
tiers that have Animal Planet and these news networks. Again, we're talking
about the basic networks, not the expanded premium.

GROSS: But what about filters? Filtering technology allows parents to screen
out stations that they don't want their children to see. So if filters work,
why would you need the FCC to intervene?

Mr. WINTER: Well, the commercially available filters, you can either block a
channel outright or you can set up your V-chip, which is in every single TV
set that's been manufactured after such-and-such a date, I think the late
'90s, to catch and to prohibit any kind of content, any television program
coming through. Now the V-chip is based upon a TV rating system, the TV
rating system much like the motion picture system. You have different--you
know, TV-MA, TV-14, TV-G. I don't even--you know, here I've been in the
broadcast industry for almost 25 years and I still don't understand really
what those monikers mean, but it's supposed to take, you know, a clue from
what has been mostly successful with motion pictures.

Now who rates a television show to determine whether it's a mature show or
whether it's a kids' show or what? Guess who? It's the television networks.
If a television network rates a program too highly, too maturely, the
advertisers will stay away, and who gets hurt? Gee, the networks. So you
have basically, you know, the fox guarding the henhouse here in terms of
trying to set up a standard, a system, that protects kids. If the rating
system were accurate, the V-chip is something that might be able to be relied
upon but right now it's not.

GROSS: My guest is Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television
Council. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television
Council. The group's mission is to protect children from graphic and
gratuitous sex, violence and profanity in the media, primarily on TV.

Your group, the Parents Television Council, has been credited with generating
I think about 99 percent of the letters that the FCC gets with complaints
about indecent material on broadcast. Would you describe your approach to
letter-writing campaigns? And I should say that you had letter-writing
campaigns, you know, against the Janet Jackson Super Bowl wardrobe
malfunction, a letter-writing campaign about the Nicolette Sheridan
promotional spot that's on "Monday Night Football." You now have a
letter-writing campaign against Carl's Jr. and Hardee's because of the Paris
Hilton ad. So why don't you describe your approach to letter-writing
campaigns?

Mr. WINTER: Sure. First, let me correct an error in the premise there. We
do not--we are not responsible for 99 percent of complaints to the FCC. That
number was manufactured by the FCC because we publicly embarrassed them for
not doing their job. The FCC, frankly, does not like us that much because we
do publicly embarrass them when they fail to abide by their charter, which is
to serve the public interest and to enforce the indecency laws. The former
chairman, Michael Powell, couldn't stand us, and, frankly, he sicced one of
his henchmen on us publicly by saying, `Oh, the PTC is responsible for 99
percent.' That's factually false. Last year, the PTC and its members filed
approximately 225,000 complaints out of a total of between 1.1 million and 1.2
million. That's about 20 percent.

I will absolutely take credit for, on behalf of my organization, creating a
means for the public to speak out to the FCC. Up until we made this online
Web complaint form possible through our Web site, there was no effective way
for the public to speak out to the governing body, their public servants, the
FCC, to be able to speak out to the FCC. We're proud of the fact that we put
in place a reasonable and easy means by which the public can complain if they
feel the law has been broken.

Now do we do letter-writing campaigns? Absolutely. E-mail campaigns?
Absolutely. We did not do one on the Nicolette Sheridan or the "Desperate
Housewives" episode that you mentioned. We did on Janet Jackson. We did
recently with a broadcast where a prostitute was hired to have sex with a
horse, to extract horse semen. We felt that that was a violation of the
indecency law. We did not file an FCC complaint with this Paris Hilton/Carl's
Jr./Hardee's ad.

GROSS: No, I should clarify your complaint is to Carl's Jr. and Hardee's.

Mr. WINTER: Our complaint is...

GROSS: Your complaint is to the corporations.

Mr. WINTER: Correct. Our complaint is to the corporation, that there's
gross corporate irresponsibility when you're trying to sell hamburgers and
maximize profit by basically using pornography during early times of the day
to make your product known. We think it is absolutely grossly irresponsible
from a corporate standpoint and we have had tens of thousands of our members
write to the CEO via e-mail, and the CEO has, number one, dismissed our
complaints and said, `Get a life.' He doesn't want to hear from us anymore,
so he's effectively blocked any communication from our members to executives
there to speak out. I think that's ironic.

GROSS: Do you think that an organized e-mail campaign such as the campaigns
run by the Parents Television Council should have the same weight whether the
letters are received by the FCC or by an individual broadcast network or by a
commercial sponsor? Should they have the same weight as letters that seem to
come from people who actually saw the program or saw the commercial and
decided to sit down and in their own words say something?

Mr. WINTER: I think it should absolutely carry the same amount of weight.
The reason why we have a million members across the country is because people
are so fed up and they feel that one voice can't accomplish anything. This is
just trying to take a potshot at an organization, and other folks do it too.
They say--well, even Chairman Michael Powell himself referred to PTC member
e-mail as spam. Here's a public servant, serving the public, and the public
speaks out and he calls it spam because they happen to be members of an
organization. I think that's outrageous. I think he should have been fired a
long time ago rather than having the opportunity to quit.

GROSS: Let me give you an example of something that's happened with our show.
We've been the subject of a couple of e-mail campaigns and we've gotten a lot
of e-mails saying, `We saw your program, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,' and
it's clear that some of the people writing have no idea we're even a radio
show, that we're not a television show. And so when you get e-mails like
that, you know, that are responding to a campaign, and you can tell the people
don't know your show, they think it's a TV show, it's hard to take those
letters seriously.

Mr. WINTER: I'm not sure how to respond to that one.

GROSS: You know, they want...

Mr. WINTER: If...

GROSS: ...to be part of the cause. They want to do what they think is the
right thing and do what their organization tells them to do, but, you know,
sometimes they don't even know...

Mr. WINTER: I think...

GROSS: ...what the target is of their complaint.

Mr. WINTER: If your organization is receiving letters, complaints, which
clearly do not--they contradict the facts, I think you have to consider that
letter in its context. At the same time, if you get the same letter from
someone who did hear a program that they felt required a letter, a response, I
think you have every obligation, as, you know, responding to a consumer as a
customer, to respond to that inquiry. Now is it tough? Yes. But just
because it's difficult doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

GROSS: When you're monitoring content for children, you know, so that parents
know what's out there, do you consider whether characters are gay or not? Is
homosexuality an issue one way or another for you?

Mr. WINTER: No. It is for many of our members, not all of them, some of
them. And when there are gay situations, again, we'll include that in the
description so that those who feel strongly about that can, again, make a more
informed choice for themselves. Our organization does not have a position on
that issue. We treat graphic sex, whether it be gay, straight, whatever, as
the same. It's graphic sex, and that is what we're trying to protect children
from. It's the exposure to this graphic sex. And again, the reasons for it,
the rationale for doing so is so well-documented by other very well-known
respected research organizations around the country which shows that an
early-age exposure and repeated exposure to graphic sexual material does
encourage sexual activity at an earlier age.

GROSS: You publish what you call a Family TV Guide in which you give
descriptions of certain shows. For "The Simpsons," the description is, `Not
recommended for younger viewers. The show ridicules entrepreneurs, religion,
educators and law-enforcement officials and has occasionally incorporated foul
language into its dialogue. The cartoon sends a mixed message on parenthood.
While the father is a bumbling idiot, the mother is a loving and patient wife
and role model.' Why is it important to point out that the show ridicules
entrepreneurs, religion, educators and law-enforcement officials?

Mr. WINTER: Well, again, all these--the ridicule, the messages in the media
are often subtle and we can certainly sit back and laugh and make fun of many
things. I like "The Simpsons" personally. It's one of my favorite shows. I
laugh out loud. I think it is just a creative powerhouse. The characters--I
get a big charge out of it. But guess what? I don't have it on in the living
room when my daughter's in the room because there is harsh language. There is
coarse dialogue. There are representations of characters which, you know, at
such a young age could create a lasting impression which I want my child to
develop outside of that kind of a negative portrayal. And so what I do is the
best I possibly can, like I hope most other parents try to do. If they're
going to watch something that they enjoy, that they don't feel is appropriate
for their kids, they make sure that they watch it at a time, in a place, in a
way that their kids are not exposed to.

GROSS: So your group isn't only about decency and profanity and violence
'cause you're also objecting to, you know, shows that ridicule entrepreneurs,
religion and educators.

Mr. WINTER: And racism and sexism. I mean, you know, we do studies
frequently that talk about, you know, what--not frequently; we do them not
infrequently. We do research reports, we publish studies on all manner of
other content. For instance, you know, we have done, not every Father's Day
but about every other Father's Day, a report on how are father figures
portrayed on broadcast television. Isn't it interesting that in most sitcoms,
the biggest idiot in the whole plot is usually the father in the house? It
takes the smart-aleck kid next door to solve the problems that a father can't
do inside their own home. Again, you know, repeated exposure to this type of
material, does it make a kid all of a sudden love their father less? Of
course not. But I'll tell you what. The repeated messages, these undertones
are subtle and they can have a lasting impact, and that's why it's so
important for us to point these out and again for parents to make more
informed choices so that they can make sure that their kids are seeing more
along the lines of what they want their family to see.

GROSS: My guest is Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television
Council. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television
Council. Its mission is to protect children from graphic and gratuitous sex,
violence and profanity in the media, primarily on TV.

Many conservatives are against regulation and they think that market should
decide what survives and what fails and what flourishes and what doesn't. Why
do you think that entertainment should be different, that there should be more
rather than less regulation of entertainment programming?

Mr. WINTER: Well, first of all, I'm not a conservative. I'm proudly
liberal, been a lifelong Democrat and happy to talk about any manner of social
issues, left, center, right, that will affirm that position. The fact that
there are--let's call them libertarians, people who feel there should be no
place whatsoever for the government when it comes to media consumption, media
content. You know, I certainly respect that opinion. Markets should decide
on almost every front, but when people are exploiting and actually doing civic
harm for the sake of a buck, we don't stand for it as a society.

When people are employing 10- and 12-year-olds in Malaysia to build tennis
shoes so that we can buy them more cheaply at Wal-Mart, we're outraged. We
stand up and we say, `No. We won't allow that. As a society, it's wrong.'
When tobacco products have a warning on the box that say it may cause cancer,
do we say, `Well, but, you know, we're just going to let the market decide,'
or are we going to say, `You know what? The states are going to ban the sale
of tobacco products to kids under 18,' or 17, whatever the age is for the
various states. Do we just sit back and say we're going to let the market
decide on everything? Not when there is a long-term documented cause and
effect harm that's been--that can be clinically, socially, medically measured
and associate with any other type of activity or product. We don't stand up
for it.

GROSS: You have children?

Mr. WINTER: I have a seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter, yes.

GROSS: What's the most difficult part for you of feeling confident that she's
not watching stuff that you think will really be harmful, that it'll be
obscene or just indecent or sexual?

Mr. WINTER: The hardest part is that because the broadcast airwaves have
become so coarse recently, there's just no certainty at any time of the day
that when you turn on the TV and start flipping channels, that your not going
to be barraged by something. A couple years ago, I mentioned when I was a
stay-at-home dad for a while and I was cooking dinner--I was literally cooking
dinner in the kitchen, and I heard the channels being flipped. And there--she
stopped on this one television show and I came out to see what it was, and it
was one of these reality dating shows. It was about 5:00 in the afternoon,
and I got her, you know, to turn the channel quickly away.

I went in the other room to watch and see exactly what it was that was on
because I was shocked by what I saw just briefly. It was a show where there's
two guys and two girls, and they are basically competing to see who's going to
shack up and sleep with whom. And in order to make the show more edgy, they
threw in at the end of the show one more guy or one more girl, so it's uneven.
There's three of one and two of the other. In order for this one girl to get
the guy she wanted, she took off her shirt, she put whipped cream on her
breasts and she allowed the guy to eat the whipped cream off her bare chest.
Now it was pixelated, but you could still see basically everything that was
happening.

The message that's being broadcast at 5 in the afternoon is that, `Little
girls, if you want the boy to like you, this is the type of behavior you need
to do, to take. This is what you need to do if you want the boy to like you
and to pick you.' It's subtle and it's not spoken, but it's powerful. If
that show was on at midnight or 11:00 at night and I'm a college kid, I'm
saying, `Hey, this is the best show in the world. Come on, guys, watch this.
This is great.' But at that time of the day--again, I was in the kitchen
making dinner, and all of a sudden, I heard this dialogue and I'm thinking,
`What the heck is that?' When I popped out, I was absolutely blown away by
what I saw.

This is the type of stuff that is most frightening as the parent of a young
girl, when--and look, I think Howard Stern is very funny. I think he's smart.
He knows his audience and he delivers to his audience a product that his
audience likes. But when he's talking endlessly about a girl and anal sex, if
he's putting into the minds of young boys, young men, that if a girl doesn't
put out anal sex on the first date she's not cool, there is an added pressure
on every young girl in this country. This is a societal issue and this is a
health and welfare issue, and that's why I'm here. That's why I'm fighting
this battle because I believe that there is a cause and effect and I'm trying
to do everything I possibly can to preserve the next generation of kids from
having a further downward spiral from more gross, graphic content at even
earlier times of the day.

GROSS: Your group was very concerned about the Janet Jackson breast exposure
on the Super Bowl, and so it started this, like, huge controversy in the
country, right? Everybody's talking about it. The news is talking about it,
the talk shows are buzzing about it, and every time you turned on the TV, you
basically saw that moment, over and over and over again, pixelated, but you
saw it, like, over and over and over for months. What was your reaction to
watching the Janet Jackson moment over and over and over again? Even though
it was, you know, pixelated, you were constantly having your attention called
to it.

Mr. WINTER: Well, again, it's a slippery slope. We're seeing it again now
with this Paris Hilton TV commercial. It's on every single network news
program around the country. We're giving the folks at Carl's Jr. even
more...

GROSS: Exac--yes, exactly.

Mr. WINTER: ...attention to this commercial than we thought.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. WINTER: But what's our alternative? Our alternative is to shut up and
allow it to just happen and for it to become the next standard by which next
year's has to be more edgy than that? Again, at some point in time you have
to call this out and you have to say thus far and no farther. That's what
we're saying, and if part of the controversy is the amount of additional media
exposure and that's the price we have to pay for this downward spiral to
cease, you know what? It's painful, but that's what we have to do.

With the Janet Jackson thing, again, people can debate till the cows come home
about what the harm is of a breast being exposed, but the bottom line is
families were sitting down to watch a football game, and without their
consent, they were forced to watch, briefly, a striptease. No one had the
ability--the V-chip wouldn't have protected that. There's no remote control
in history fast enough to unring that bell once it already happened. That's
the offense, and the fact that it did have such huge outrage across the
country I think is reflective of the amount of media coverage that came after
it. And again if that's the price, it's a painful price, but if that's the
price to make sure that it never happens again, then, you know, I guess we
have to just sit back and say that's the cost of our doing business. The
additional exposure, the additional amount of times that graphic content was
aired, if that's what it takes to reverse the tide, so be it.

GROSS: Tim Winter, good to talk with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. WINTER: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Tim Winter is the executive director of the Parents Television
Council.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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