A U.S. Senate hearing on how the entertainment industry markets violence to children had everything it needed Tuesday (May 4) -- except for several key representatives of the entertainment industry.
The hearing before the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., was designed, according to his office, to gather information on how television, music, movie and video-game companies sell their products to young people.
But virtually no one was on hand to counter the arguments of the politicians, cultural observers, professors and mental-health professionals who criticized such entertainers as Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails.
The only representatives from the entertainment industry were Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association.
The chief executive officers of four of the world's major music distributors -- Gerald Levin of Time Warner; Edgar Bronfman Jr., of Seagrams, which owns the Universal Music Group; Strauss Zelnick of BMG Entertainment; and Howard Stringer of Sony Corporation of America -- declined invitations to attend, according to Erik Hotmire, Brownback's press secretary. None of the CEOs could be reached for comment.
Hilary Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents U.S. record labels, said she decided not to attend because "it was staged as political theater."
"They just wanted to find a way to shame the industry, and I'm not ashamed," Rosen said.
Makers of popular music, video games and other entertainment came under fire after the April 20 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that left 14 students (including the two suspected shooters) and a teacher dead. It has been widely reported that the suspects, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were 18 and 17, respectively, were fans of Marilyn Manson, KMFDM, Rammstein and other heavy-metal and industrial bands. Some observers have said violence in music, in video games and in other popular media contributed to the environment that made such a tragedy possible.
Tuesday's hearing was scheduled several weeks ago, but it received heightened attention in the wake of the shootings.
Brownback, a first-term senator who was elected to fill former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole's seat in 1996 and was re-elected in 1998, initiated a letter that asked Bronfman to "voluntarily cease producing, promoting and distributing to children music that glorifies violence." Seagrams owns Interscope Records, Manson's label.
Nine other senators signed the letter.
"It is disappointing that multibillion-dollar communications companies have no one on staff willing to communicate with us on this important issue," the senator said as Tuesday's hearing convened. He focused mostly on video games and television, saying little about music.
Former Secretary of Education William Bennett was more forceful in his denunciation of the entertainment companies. Their absence, he said, amounted to a "public shaming."
"My hunch is they will continue to ignore you like they did today," Bennett told the committee.
Other testimony came from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.; and the Rev. Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Denver.
Hatch made a quip about Manson's androgyny, calling him "he or she or whatever the case might be." Hatch said he believed Manson cancelled the final five shows of his U.S. tour after the high school shootings because the shock rocker "realizes that he can be tremendously booed and that his work is tremendously offensive."
In announcing the cancellations last week, Manson blamed the shooting on "access to guns" and said, "The media has unfairly scapegoated the music industry and so-called goth kids and has speculated -- with no basis in truth -- that artists like myself are in some way to blame."
Hatch and Lieberman said they might ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the way entertainment companies market to children, just as the FTC investigated tobacco companies' advertising practicies in the early 1990s.
Chaput placed the blame for the Colorado incident on the willingness of ordinary people to adopt and tolerate violent imagery, but he also accused filmmakers and other entertainment companies of presenting such imagery recklessly.
He cited "The Matrix," a science-fiction film whose soundtrack features Manson's "Rock Is Dead" (RealAudio excerpt) and which features gunmen in black trench coats, as an example. Chaput said he saw the film last week.
"It occurred to me that Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold might have seen that film," Chaput said. "If they did, it certainly didn't deter them." Harris and Klebold wore black trench coats the day of the attack.
Hatch and Brownback both mentioned industrial band Nine Inch Nails as another band they believe provides a bad example to children. The group became famous for the sexual and violent imagery of songs such as "Closer" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Big Man With a Gun," both from The Downward Spiral (1994).
Nina Crowley, director of Mass Mic, an anti-censorship organization in Leominster, Mass., said the hearing was "a very stacked-looking thing," and a showcase for conservative views.
"I find it a little upsetting," she said.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee comprises 11 Republicans and nine Democrats.