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Nicholas Johnson Comments and Exchange During
"Decoding Hollywood Politics and Interests in Campaign 2000"
Chris Lydon's "The Connection" Radio Program
September 12, 2000

NOTE: On September 12, 2000, Chris Lydon's network radio program, "The Connection" dealt with the topic: "Decoding Hollywood Politics and Interests in Campaign 2000." The invited guests included: Peter Bart, Editor-in-Chief Variety; Martin Kaplan, Director, Norman Lear Center at USC; Steven Brill, Brill's Content; Bernard Weinraub, writer for the New York Times; Ken Auletta, New Yorker Media Columnist. The link goes to a textual page of background, which has a link to a "Listen Now" Real Audio streaming audio of the entire program. Nicholas Johnson's remarks start at 36 minutes 35 seconds into the hour-long program and end at 44 minutes 45 seconds. (The Real Audio player provides a sliding control for picking a starting time.) What follows is an excerpt from that program.

Chris Lydon [CL]:  Nick is on the line.

Nicholas Johnson [NJ]:  Hello, Chris.

CL:  Welcome, Nick.

NJ:  Well, I just . . .

CL:  Sounds like my friend Nick Johnson.

NJ:  That's right, former FCC Commissioner, and I just wanted to throw in . . .

CL:  Great media reform . . .

NJ:  You've got the right people and they're on the right subject.

Of course it's about money. As we read in this morning's paper, the same thing is true in tobacco.  You can addict 13- and 14-year-olds.  We all know that.  If you can make money by selling violence to little kids, and nobody will prevent you from doing it, you make the rationalization you need to do anything to increase the bottom line.  It's as simple as that.

But what I wanted to throw in was our experience in the 1970's with the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, with which you're familiar Chris. We did in fact produce a reduction in violence for, I think, the first time and possibly the only time in the history of American television. And we did it through Ken Auletta's suggestion about shaming.  We identified -- by reporting the incidents of violence and who was advertising on those programs -- we identified what we called "America's ten bloodiest corporations" and publicized the names of the CEOs. We could put as many as 300,000 letters on their desks at the office.

CL:  You were out of your FCC office by the time this happened.  This was done as citizen, not as government.

NJ:  This was done as chair of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting.

CL:  Would you have done it as a regulator?

NJ:  Well, probably not.

But the point is, here is a mechanism, and it does work. The CEOs put pressure on the ad agencies and the ad agencies put pressure on Hollywood and the net result was a reduction in levels of violence.  And then I left Washington and came back home to Iowa and levels of violence went back up again.

But they constantly come to Washington -- this goes back over 50 years -- they constantly come to Washington and promise they're going to reduce levels of violence and then the next year they increase them.

CL:  So what would you do about trash media at this moment, Nick Johnson?

NJ:  Well, I think if you want to reduce it, if you're looking for a mechanism that can do it, that can do it.

CL:  Citizen action.  So it's Mothers Against Drunk Driving kind of stuff.

NJ:  Yeah, except Mothers Against Drunk Driving, I'm not sure, do they boycott or indicate . . .

CL:   Well, they raise hell.

NJ:  Well, I know they raise hell.  It's not just about raising hell.  I mean, I love Paddy Chayefsky's movie "Network" -- "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

But you also need to know where do you put the pressure and how do you do it.  There are intricate, scientific strategies to bringing about change in the behavior of very powerful corporations.

This is what Ralph Nader spent the last 40 years doing and part of the reason why the Green Party has him running as president this year.

CL:  I want to hear from Peter Bart.  How would Hollywood feel about having to listen to this kind of feedback?

NJ:  I can tell you that before Peter talks. (laughing)

CL:  Peter Bart.

Peter Bart [PB]:  I think were a responsible pressure group of the sort Mr. Johnson describes to single out particular examples of -- say, in video games, in recorded music, as well as film -- specific cases where an extremely violent film is advertised egregiously in excess on kids' programs -- when we talk about "kids' programs" we're not talking about "Friends" -- then I think you'd find a real responsiveness.  I think that sort of approach is the way a democratic society deals with this problem.  Not through government thought police.

CL:  Are you ready to lead it Nick Johnson?

NJ:  Well, right now I'm on the local school board, as you know, and I am taking on K-12 issues and that seems to be a handful. But at some point I may get back to that.  I may . . .

CL:  We're going to have to clone you, Nick.

NJ:  I may say, in fairness, the downside of this is that it can lead to the kind of thing that Red Channels represented in the Fifties.  Jerry Falwell was also interested in putting pressure on advertisers.

CL:  You're talking about McCarthyist anti-comm?

NJ:  Yeah. I mean, this advertiser pressure works.  It can work for anybody. So it is a risky strategy in that sense.

Martin Kaplan [MK]:  But -- Chris, this is Marty -- the most useful form of pressure is not shame, which I applaud, but rather voting with your dollars.  If consumers don't want these kinds of products they shouldn't spend money on them.  There was a television station in Chicago that put Jerry Springer on the air as a commentator.  The ratings plummeted because that local market said, "No, we don't want that." In 24 hours he was off the station.  These companies are hair-trigger responsive to consumer supply and demand.  So . . .

NJ:  I'm sure the gun companies would be, too, if we made guns available freely over the counter to young kids. And then wed watch the market to see which ones were most popular. The guns that didn't sell as well, probably, they'd change their design. And we could also offer alcohol and illegal drugs and prostitution and all kinds of things and see how the marketplace would work.  But the fact of the matter is that we have limitations, particularly with regard to what we let children have access to.

MK:  Of course. Of course, I don't dispute that.  In fact, I think the brilliance of the FTC study is to focus on marketing.  It is not about the muddy area of the impact on societal crime of crime in entertainment.  It's about what the marketing plans are of video games, music and movies.  Do they, in fact, go to Nickelodeon or Kid's Magazine to market to a target audience younger than the one that the ratings are for.  Those kinds of practices you can look at quite empirically and there's no question that children constitute a special class of consumers.

NJ:  And they represent multi-hundred-billion-dollar markets.

CL:  Nick Johnson, I want to drill you out on this because you have also been a staunch First Amendment guy, and a regulator, and a sort of citizen activist, and I think there are a lot of different pressures here.  You've always distinguished between, and you tried to decode free speech campaigns when they're just a kind of fig leaf for profitable speech interests.  How would that be useful here?  To sort of, to tell Hollywood, "You are not talking about free speech, you're talking about profitable speech rather shamelessly."

NJ:  Well, shamelessly is right.

But by definition what these global corporations -- when Time and Warner merged, we asked them why, and they said "Because someday there will be five firms controlling all the world's media and we intend to be one of them."  We now have, I believe, five music firms that control over 95 percent of all the music in the world.  I mean, this is about money, there is no question about that.

As someone noted earlier, the intellectual property issues -- whether the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva or it's the U.S. Congress in Washington -- we're talking about a multi-billion-dollar global industry here that is trying to capture more and more of that profit.  And in the process put a lot of restrictions on folks that want to give their own stuff away for free as a matter of fact.

CL:  So it used to be . . .

NJ:  It's all profitable speech from their view.

CL:  Well, this used to be considered an antitrust issue and maybe it ought to be again.  Nick Johnson, thank you. It's always a pleasure to hear from Nick Johnson, former FCC Commissioner in the Johnson era.