Warning that American children are being fed a "dependable daily dose of violence" from the entertainment industry, President Clinton yesterday announced a federal government study into the marketing strategies used to sell movies, music and video games.
The Federal Trade Commission's $1 million study, to be carried out over the next 18 months, will have the legal power to demand documents from the entertainment industry, and is designed to lift a veil on whether production companies are deliberately using violent imagery and language to lure young consumers.
Clinton accompanied the announcement with some of the most condemnatory language he has used against an industry that includes several of the Democratic Party's most loyal contributors. At a Rose Garden ceremony, he read aloud from ads for video games, including one that promised to help people "get in touch with your gun-toting, cold-blooded murdering side," and another that boasted it is "more fun than shooting your neighbor's cat."
While Clinton has occasionally lectured entertainment leaders about their less-wholesome content, the FTC study represents the first official proceeding in recent years.
White House officials said Clinton hopes the study will produce valuable information, and was not prejudging that it will lead to new regulations or laws regulating the marketing practices of an industry that prizes its First Amendment freedoms. And unlike a past FTC probe into the use of cartoon character Joe Camel to market cigarettes, this study is not questioning the legality of the entertainment industry's marketing -- only its appropriateness.
Primarily, aides said, Clinton hopes the study can advance a broad national debate, in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, about the various influences that contribute to youth violence.
The suggestion that entertainment companies are behaving negligently prompted many industry leaders to question Clinton's proposal yesterday -- complaining that he was seeking publicity at their expense, and that complying with an FTC study could be a burden.
"I'm frustrated," said Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. "The White House was seeking a headline and an opportunity" to move ahead of pending legislation in Congress that would have mandated a study.
She said her industry, which has come under criticism for violent rap and heavy metal music, will cooperate with the FTC because "we have nothing to hide, and we don't market to children." But she said the White House, itself the target of numerous legal inquiries, "should know something about document production" and its headaches.
"We're a fat, inviting target," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "Politicians know that when you trash the movie industry -- `it's soiling the culture' -- your numbers go up. They're looking for something to fix it quickly." But there are signs that the industry is feeling the pressure of either potential government intrusion, or a consumer backlash against it, and is prepared to take steps to head that off.
Last week, Valenti held a closed-door meeting at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills with senior executives from all the major studios to brief them on Washington's concerns and discuss voluntary measures to address violence in movies.
Valenti disclosed few details about the content of the discussion but said he is "trying to come forward with a positive program."
Valenti has scheduled four other meetings in coming weeks with writers, directors, producers and actors.
The FTC is an independent agency; Clinton cannot order it to do a study. But yesterday's announcement was clearly carried out under White House orchestration. Clinton announced that he was directing Justice Department funds to be used to help underwrite the study.
As part of a juvenile justice bill pending on Capitol Hill, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) had called for just such a study. Brownback praised Clinton's action, calling it a "modest, but necessary, first step towards encouraging a sense of corporate responsibility among some of the most powerful corporations in the world."
The FTC study will not look at television programming. A White House aide said that is because there are already considerable Federal Communications Commission rules governing broadcasters, and because all new televisions will soon possess a "V-chip" allowing parents to block out violent content.
Clinton said his concern is that many firms in the entertainment industry are not complying with voluntary standards that have already been adapted to try to shield young people from inappropriate material. "The time has come to show some restraint, even if it has a short-term impact on the bottom line," Clinton said.
Clinton has shown signs of ambivalence about how sternly to lecture Hollywood. At a Los Angeles fund-raiser two weeks ago, he told some of the industry's most powerful film executives, "There's no call for finger-pointing here."
Some executives yesterday believed Clinton was doing exactly that -- and said Democrats may pay a price in contributions for what many believed is political posturing. "At some point Hollywood wakes up and says what exactly is going on here?" one studio executive said yesterday.
Staff writers Paul Farhi and Ruth Marcus contributed to this report. Waxman reported from Los Angeles.
CAPTION: Arthur Sawe, 9, of Seattle is applauded by the Clintons after he spoke at a White House event about his role in a campaign against violent video games. The president announced a $1 million U.S. study of the marketing of violence in entertainment.
CAPTION: Arthur Sawe enters the Rose Garden between hosts Hillary Rodham and President Clinton to give a speech on his reaction to marketing of violent video games. The Seattle fourth-grader and his mother campaigned to enforce standards in Washington state.