Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Parents Television Council Must Die!

On Thursday evening (after putting down my copy of A la recherche du temps perdu, of course) I settled in for an hour of ABC's funny and smart new teen dramedy, Life as We Know It. Instead of my guilty pleasure, I was rudely greeted by an infomercial for St. Jude's Children's Hospital starring Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for playing a haggard, materialistic shrew on Sex and the City.

I did a little research and found out that the show had been preempted, possibly due to complaints from a horrible little group calling themselves The Parents Television Council. It turns out I was lucky to get the St. Jude's cancer special: in Utah the Dec. 2nd episode was replaced by the Billy Graham Crusade (allegedly a coincidence, but you can be the judge).

The PTC is actively campaigning to censor Life as We Know It, and MTV and Sex and the City are in their sights as well, but their real target is any show that they deem questionable (and that's basically everything that's not on PAX). Just what the heck is the PTC, you ask? You may have seen a news report recently about how one group is responsible for 99.8% of the indecency complaints filed with the FCC. Guess who?

Like the PMRC before it, the PTC is a prudish outfit that dresses up right-wing social engineering as concern for impressionable children. The group claims on its website that it is non-partisan; only concerned, as their motto ("Because Our Children are Watching") suggests, with protecting the precious youth of America from the "gratuitous sex, foul language, and violence" that befoul the airwaves.

Surely it will come as no surprise to learn that the PTC's claims to political neutrality are blatantly false. The founder and president of the organization is a man by the name of L. Brent Bozell III. According to his bio on the PTC website, he is "one of the most outspoken and effective national leaders in the conservative movement today." He is also the founder of the Media Research Center, a right-wing media 'watchdog' group founded in 1987 that is largely responsible for popularizing the theory that there is a liberal bias in the American media. The MRC's long list of supporters reads like a who's who of the lunatic right: Rush Limbaugh, Robert Novak, Brit Hume, Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Lucianne Goldberg, Jerry Falwell, a guy from the Wall Street Journal editorial board and so on.

But certainly the MRC is Bozell's other job. It doesn't have any bearing on the PTC, right? In theory, yes. In practice, not even close.

It appears that the PTC's main claim to bipartisanship is the participation of octogenarian Steve Allen on its 'celebrity' advisory board. Other members include Billy Ray Cyrus, Naomi Judd, Michael Medved, Jane Seymour and Pat Boone, none of whom, to put it mildly, are known for their liberal views. Most of the advisers are less well-known, but their resumes are telling.

Dr. Robert Shaw is the author of a tome on the evils of permissive parenting, a richly ironic topic considering he would like the FCC to do the job he thinks parents are supposed to do in the first place. Dr. Shaw recently hawked his book on that bastion of liberalism, Fox News.

Gary Johnson is a producer for PAX-TV who, according to his PTC bio, has "co-written a movie based on the true story of Steve Saint, a missionary's son who returns to Ecuador to continue the work of his father and his aunt to bring the word of god to what has been called the most violent group of people on the face of the earth." This horribly-written sentence implies that Ecuadorians in general are the most violent people on the face of the earth. Steve Saint was actually trying to put an evangelical Christian stamp on a group of indians who make up a small part of the 5% of the population of Ecuador that is not Roman Catholic.

Holly McClure is a film critic and family values advocate who makes frequent appearances on Fox News and Pat Robertson's The 700 Club. On her website one learns that she produced a behind the scenes documentary about the making of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and was involved in making special features for the DVD release. There is also this tantalizing tidbit: she wrote the forward to a book about the Passion in which she apparently "describes in detail the miracles that occurred during production [of the film]."

As if this wasn't enough, there's Dean Jones, star of The Love Bug and That Darn Cat who actually wrote an article for christianity.com called Censorship: A Defense (this is not a joke). There's a handy link to this article right on the PTC website. Usually groups who are advocating censorship at least have the good sense to deny that this is what they're up to. Apparently the PTC is proud of the fact.

An enlightening article in the Washington Post (free registration required) sheds some light on the PTC staff. Brent Bozell is described as a "well-connected conservative activist" who "is outspoken about his own values, which include vehement opposition to abortion and gay rights." The PTC was originally started as an offshoot of the Media Research Center and the two organizations share an office space (but they're totally separate, remember?).

The article profiles PTC "entertainment analyst" Aubree Rankin. She won't discuss her political beliefs, but she "majored in politics at Grove City College, a conservative Christian institution in northwestern Pennsylvania whose Web site notes that it explicitly rejects 'relativism and secularism.'"

We also meet PTC executive director Tim Winter who claimed "partial credit when President Bush won reelection last month. 'It's the culture, stupid,' Winter said then. 'Our mission was validated on Tuesday night.'" Truly the epitome of non-partisanship, no?

I don't think any self-respecting person would disagree that there are things on TV that are not appropriate for children. The problem with groups like the PTC it that they want everything on TV to be suitable for kids. Rather than have parents take responsibility for their own children, the PTC wants to create a nanny state to do the job for them.

As dire as this all sounds, the PTC faces an uphill battle. They have powerful enemies, even from within the conservative camp, such as Rupert Murdoch, purveyor of all those sinful Fox programs. They also risk miscalculating the mood of the American people. After all, we love our trashy TV, and not just in the godless reaches of the Northeast and California. Desperate Housewives, a big no-no according to the PTC (who do you think registered all those complaints about the Nicolette Sheridan towel malfunction promo?), is wildly popular—marginally more so in the 'Red States.'

Of course, a show as massive as Desperate Housewives can swat the PTC away like a pesky nuisance. It's the shows like Life as We Know It that stand to lose when subjected to a PTC campaign. The best thing we can do is support good programming and resist the censors who want to bowdlerize American culture, one teen dramedy at a time. It also wouldn't hurt to let our elected representatives know that we don't want the religious right determining what we can and cannot watch. And I thought we were fighting a war against narrow-minded theocracy.

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