Cohen and Solomon: Bill Bennett's Hypocrisy

Just when you thought gangsta rap music, Geraldo, and Jenny Jones were devouring the soul of American civilization, here comes a savior -- the ever-virtuous William Bennett. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Bennett, a former secretary of education and drug czar, once aspired to be president. That requires getting elected. Guardians of national virtue are self-appointed. When you see Bennett in the media -- he's hard to miss these days -- promoting the Republican agenda or his book on morality, or leading his new campaign against trashy TV talk shows, you'd be well-advised to remember his occupation: politician. Like other skilled politicians today, Bennett has a finely honed ability to seize upon issues and garner big media attention -- all the while masking his essential contradictions and failure to generate solutions. Take the issue of TV's sleazy, sex-saturated talk shows -- profit-mad programs that are going deeper into the gutter at the same time that a half-dozen giant corporations gain increasing dominion over the television industry. If you don't believe there's a connection between these two trends, ask Phil Donahue. He's the pioneer in daytime talk TV, who now finds himself off the air in New York City and elsewhere -- replaced by shows that aspire to an all-smut-all-the-time format. Donahue sees media monopolization as a key factor in the dominance of sleaze -- and in the shrinking of diverse voices and issues on television. Behind each oily talk-show host is a media conglomerate -- Jenny Jones (Time Warner), Gordon Elliott (Rupert Murdoch/Fox), Geraldo Rivera and Charles Perez (Tribune Co.), Montel Williams and Maury Povich (Paramount/Viacom), Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael (Multimedia/Gannett), and Ricki Lake (Sony). It's quite a feat of hypocrisy for a politician like Bennett to target TV talk hosts after his Republican allies in Congress just passed a telecommunications "reform" bill giving unprecedented monopoly powers to the same corporations polluting the airwaves. Public attacks on Montel and Ricki Lake may play well with conservative activists. But Bennett might accomplish more through private talks with Senator Dole and House Speaker Gingrich -- rebuking their efforts to bestow still more power on media cartels that put ratings above all else. (He could also ask his political allies to return the campaign donations they receive from the corporations behind TV filth.) If the "free market" points the way to our mass-media future, then trash TV has only just begun. Meanwhile, there's more than a little hypocrisy in Bennett denouncing violence in rap and prurience on television when his party has led the charge for years against the one broadcast TV network that's almost free of violence and prurient sex -- PBS. There's also duplicity in Bennett's adroit selection of media targets. While raging against daytime talk television, he avoids criticism of another talk medium -- also rife with vulgarity -- which has played a big role in building the clout of Bennett and other conservatives. That medium is talk radio. One of the strongest voices in all of talk radio is New York's Bob Grant, who abuses callers and uses racist, often violent rhetoric. Bennett waxes eloquent when he criticizes rap songs in which fictional characters seem to revel in gang violence and killings. But he goes silent on Grant, who is distinctly nonfiction when he expresses his wish that police machine-gun New York's gay-pride marchers. Or when Grant says: "I'd like to get every environmentalist, put 'em up against a wall and shoot 'em." Bennett has paid for political ads on Grant's program -- and Grant boasts that Bennett has appeared several times on his show. At Bennett's news conference on trash TV, criticism was leveled at an episode titled "Get Bigger Breasts or Else." Last year, Rush Limbaugh used more than one broadcast to wail: "We're in bad shape in this country when you can't look at a couple of huge knockers and notice it." Is Bennett rankled by Rush Limbaugh's lewd comments about women? Does he find it less than virtuous that Limbaugh mocked a 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton as "the White House dog"? Apparently not -- since Bennett has praised Limbaugh as "possibly our greatest living American." Don't expect consistency from a man who is more politician than media critic. During a recent TV show, we pressed a spokesperson from Bennett's "Empower America" organization as to why he was ignoring talk radio filth. The response was that Bennett needed to focus on one issue at a time. The day Bennett takes on Rush Limbaugh is the day we risk heart attacks. Luckily for our health, that day is a long way off. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Bennett would not be targeting Ricki, Jenny and Montel if they were as helpful to Republican power as radio talkmeisters Rush, G. Gordon and Bob Grant. William Bennett says he's trying to organize resistance to "the giant popular culture sleaze machine." But it's hard to oppose a machine that helps fund your political allies. Especially when you subscribe to a "free enterprise" ideology that equates the public good with the unrestrained pursuit of profit.

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