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November 26, 2004



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. This long Thanksgiving weekend marks the beginning of a season when many millions of us celebrate traditional family and religious values. We think it's an appropriate time to talk about what many people call "the coarsening of America," the collapse of values we used to share. Basic things like civility. For many of us, it means the possibility of being assaulted every day by rudeness and vulgarity and feeling there is not much we can do about it. For parents, it means not being sure of what their children will see on television or in the movies or on the web, or what language they will hear on a stroll through the shopping mall, or what behavior they will witness on the playing fields.

With me to discuss all this are Dan Henninger, the deputy editor of the editorial page, Susan Lee, a member of the editorial board, Dorothy Rabinowitz, who specializes in cultural commentary, and Kim Strassel, a senior editorial page writer.

The question is, are we living through the collapse of community standards and values, or is it just what comes with freedom? Our briefing on this issue comes from correspondent Lisa Rudolph.

MAN: The champagne music of Lawrence Welk.

LAWRENCE WELK: Gentlemen, ah-one, two, three, four.

PAT SMITH: I really do miss those days. It was wholesome. We were into family, and the shows we watched represented it. That was what we lived our lives like.

LISA RUDOLPH: From "Bubbles and Light" ...

WOMEN: "Wunnerful, wunnerful"

[BRITTNEY SPEARS MUSIC: "I'm a Slave for You"]

LISA RUDOLPH: To, well, down and dirty. Times have changed. And some say, so have standards of decency and good taste.

HERB LONDON: I think we've seen a dramatic coarsening of American culture over the last 30 years or so.


HERB LONDON: It is so much around you that it's very difficult to escape.

LISA RUDOLPH: How we dress. How we behave in public. What we buy, and what we're sold.

HERB LONDON: The message that's being delivered is entirely unwholesome in the United States at the moment.

WOMAN: There's no more Fred and Ginger dancing. There's no more Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

WOMAN: Dress, politics.

WOMAN: A little more civility would be nice.

MAN: We're going downhill.

LISA RUDOLPH: From over-the-top reality shows to sexually explicit and violent TV and movies, Internet porn, rap music laced with words that used to be deleted, family entertainment is no longer necessarily G rated. Even the all-American Super Bowl.

HERB LONDON: What is the one theme in network programming? There's only one theme: sexual promiscuity.

[CLIP FROM "Desperate Housewives"]

HERB LONDON: We live with this kind of democratic madness. Everyone is permitted to express a view.

LISA RUDOLPH: But when you have someone to say what is tasteful and what is not, aren't you then traveling down a very slippery slope undermining democracy?

HERB LONDON: I don't think tastefulness, modesty, recognition of other people's rights, a concern for decent behavior, the use of appropriate language -- I don't consider that to be a constraint on democracy at all. There's a certain desire to retain what are very traditional values. And that, I think, has been lost in American life.

[CLIP FROM "Leave it to Beaver"]

RICHARD WALTER: I don't think people ever lived Leave it to Beaver lives. I think that was a romance and an idealization of that era, I think. That's the era of Joseph McCarthy.

LISA RUDOLPH: Do you honestly see no difference in our society, in our culture, than 30, 40 years ago?

RICHARD WALTER: At that time people were saying that our culture was being coarsened. Not by Ozzie and Harriet, but by comic books, horror comics. That was the thing when I was growing up. Comics were the problem.

LISA RUDOLPH: Sex and violence may be a part of human nature, simply reflected in our culture. But does it have to be in our face?

RICHARD WALTER: Shakespeare's no better. At the end of Hamlet there are nine corpses onstage. Nobody wants to see the village of the happy, nice people. It's about conflict. And it's usually about bitter, ugly, violent, deadly conflict.

LISA RUDOLPH: Is it less about artistic freedom and expression than it is about pushing the envelope for bigger ratings, more money?

RICHARD WALTER: It's just not true that if you have a lot of violence and a lot of sex on the screen, you can make a lot of money. The biggest earners in film among the top 100 movies of all time are comedies and are family movies.

LISA RUDOLPH: These days it may be harder to tell exactly what family entertainment is.

[CLIP FROM "Jersey Girl"]

LISA RUDOLPH: What passes for PG-13 is often surprising.

[CLIP FROM "Bourne Identity"]

[CLIP FROM "Friends"]

LISA RUDOLPH: Look at Friends, Primetime. You've got out of wedlock pregnancies. You've got all kinds of very adult, sexual-oriented humor.

RICHARD WALTER: Look out at the cul-de-sac where you live. You have all of those things. Is Friends a reflection of that or is that a reflection of Friends? And do not the media and shows like Friends offer an opportunity, in a safe place, to work out some of those struggles? For parents to discuss those issues with children?

HERB LONDON: This is not acceptable behavior on TV. This is not acceptable behavior for our kind of society. This is not acceptable behavior if you're expecting appropriate behavior from kids.

[CLIP FROM "Southpark"]

LISA RUDOLPH: What do you say to those who are concerned that our culture is out of control? That things have gone too far?

RICHARD WALTER: I say lighten up. Take a deep breath. You should rejoice in the ugly expression that you hear because it tells you that you're living in a free society. You don't have to embrace it. In a free society you have to tolerate a lot of expression that you don't like.

[CLIP FROM "Britney Spears"]

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, the exit polls in the last election show that about half the voters thought the country was moving in the wrong direction. Some of those were the economy, some of those were the war. But an awful lot of them, they said if you broke it down, it was the culture and the state of the culture. Clearly millions of Americans are worried about it. What are they worried about, and should they really be that concerned?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, years ago I wrote an editorial for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL called "No Guardrails."

PAUL GIGOT: I remember.

DAN HENNINGER: And the argument of that was that the culture had become like a high-speed highway in which the protective social guard rails had been taken down. And I also made the point that yes, certainly through the twentieth century we've always had a very changeable, dynamic, vital culture. The problem now is that the norms and the rules that allow traditional society to survive amid all this seem to have been eroded and taken down, so that people feel they are traversing this cultural highway at huge risk.

PAUL GIGOT: What do you think has caused that, Susan? I mean, what are the factors that have influenced that? Because I think I agree with Dan that that phenomenon has occurred, the barriers have eroded.

SUSAN LEE: Well actually, I don't agree with Dan. I don't agree with the premise. I think that sex and violence is a reality. What varies is how much society allows one to express sex and violence.

PAUL GIGOT: That's changed.

SUSAN LEE: Well, but now wait. I think it's a pendulum. And I think it goes from prudery -- and many of the people that Dan is talking about I think is an older audience that experienced the prudery of the 1950s. And now the pendulum is toward more exhibitionism, and that would be younger people who don't mind it as much. And so I think if you're talking about a cultural force, I think it's aging, or demographics, the people who feel that way.

PAUL GIGOT: But actually the demographics don't show that. Certainly it's true that it's true of a lot of older Americans -- the Lawrence Welk audience, for example. But the truth is, a lot of these people who expressed the sense that they're having problems controlling the culture and at least teaching their kids, protecting their children from it, are younger parents, people in their twenties and thirties who have to raise their children in this. Dorothy, where do you come out?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I say that talk about not accepting a premise about the prudery of the 1950s -- which just as an aside I want to tell you produced some of the greatest literature anyone has ever seen -- and I also noted that it was not all about Senator McCarthy as has been suggested. I think that what happened is, if you go back to the 1960s and you see the beginning of an equation with freedom and independence, and the fight against authority with obscenity, that's where a large part of it goes. If you equate rebellion and heroism with the flouting of all kinds of conventions, there you see this enormous growth. And that's where it took a giant step forward in the 1960s, and we have never looked back.

KIM STRASSEL: But Paul brings up an interesting point, especially about parents in their twenties and thirties and they're so worried about how they protect their kids. Isn't the real question -- I'm not so sure that it's actually clear that there's more sex, more violence, that there are more bad things in the world so much as the fact that there are so many outlets for it these days. And there are good aspects to that too. I mean, we talk about how we are an information economy, people can get anything they want on line or on a cable channel. There used to be brothels in the 19th century. Now you have Tony Soprano's ba-da-bing club on HBO. The difference is that before you just didn't go to the brothel and you didn't have to see it, whereas now you go home to your house and it's right there on your television set.

PAUL GIGOT: Right. But there's always been in this country -- and indeed in all of history -- a cultural avant-garde which produced some great culture, but it tended to be an avant-garde, a corner of the culture. Now, if you get a trend in our society, the mass media drives it right into the middle of the mainstream, and before you know it 15 year old kids in rural America are doing the exact same thing as kids in the middle of Times Square.

DAN HENNINGER: Well one of the ironies of all this is that, as Dorothy was suggesting, a lot of it began in the sixties with the so-called counter culture in which there was a challenge to kind of traditional mores and values. And that was a very avant-garde movement. What is hugely ironic is that that whole movement has been captured by corporations, by media corporations which then make it turn into a mass product and have sold it, which is completely counter to what the original purveyors of that idea thought they were doing.

KIM STRASSEL: But isn't it actually almost opposite in that what you actually have is, you have this flourishing of loads of avant-garde stations and channels and Internet sites. I mean, the mass media, the traditional networks, if anything, mean a few Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction aside and reality TV shows, tend to still be the most tame. What tend to upset a lot of people are MTV or sex stations on the Internet or whatever. And what that actually is, it used to be 50 years ago you had to go to an underground journal in San Francisco to get that stuff. It's just now that you can get it everywhere. So what you actually have is this sort of bohemian stuff flourishing everywhere.

PAUL GIGOT: Some of our friends on the left who don't much like free markets would say, hey, that's capitalism. You folks who want to be both free marketeers and cultural conservatives, you can't have it both ways. That's just what happens in a market economy.

SUSAN LEE: Well that's true. Popular entertainment is a free market. There's no question. And there is a lot of sex and violence. Free market means that your dollar means just as much as anybody else's dollar, you vote with your dollars, and sex and violence turns out to be wildly popular. Now I would draw an interesting contrast with high culture, which is a somewhat subsidized market. There's less sex and violence in high culture. You do not go to a symphony orchestra performance and have all the musicians nude, or the violinist crashing onto the cellist. But it has been suggested that if you did have that, you would have bigger audiences.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: You know, it's not only high culture dictates or the corporation. There is a thing called the family unit. Now maybe nobody noticed in the 1940s and 50s that when they went to the movies or watched television later on, you couldn't have one bed for a couple. They had to be separate beds in scenes. Slowly that went away. That kind of change was something that just barely passed. But there also was, again, with the 1960s, a certain authority presented by the youth culture where parents were listening to their children. "I learned from my children" was the unbearable saying of the times. And it still goes. With that came, of course, acceptance of their norms, which were -- I mean, you can sum it up if you go to some kind of family party and you say, "Gee, the music is loud" and you continually hear the refrain, "Uh, that's what they do now."

DAN HENNINGER: I'll take your point though, Paul. I think, for those of us who support the free market, at this point in time it is a dilemma. Because the biggest media companies, whether in music or in television and film, are huge, huge companies. They have to generate enormous amounts of revenue to make a profit, and they have to keep doing that. And the way you do that in the market they're in is to target the lowest common denominator. It's the old saying, "Sex sells." And it sells over and over again. And for those of us who believe in market signals, it is a contradiction, as Daniel Bell once said.

PAUL GIGOT: We got a letter when we criticized -- we wrote an editorial criticizing Viacom and MTV after the Janet Jackson episode, and we got a letter from Tom Preston, the then-president of Viacom, saying, "You folks are just out of touch." But is there any real requirement here for corporate self-restraint? Look, we can't put everything on. Susan, is there any --

SUSAN LEE: No. I mean, these are not decisions that one person -- we're talking about an entire culture. Popular entertainment. Huge amount of consumers, huge amount of producers. We are getting, as Dan said, perhaps the lowest common denominator. But we are getting what these consumers are demanding, and that's what producers are producing. No, I disagree.

KIM STRASSEL: The record of this, though, is mixed. I mean, yeah, sex sells, or at least this is what everyone talks about and believes. But the reality is, is that when you actually look at where American families, for instance, put their dollars and they have a choice, they always tend to sort of choose more -- well they often choose to tend more -- moral sort of fair. I mean, the top 20 making money-making movies of all time. Not one of them is R rated.

And there was a great study from the Dove Foundation. They looked over 10 years of movies and found that movies that were G rated had like an 80 percent greater rate of return than movies that were R rated. So I mean Americans do actually choose some wholesome fair when they're given the choice.

PAUL GIGOT: Is there a role, Dorothy, for government here, that is by the FCC? You see them fighting Viacom this week, 3.5 million dollars.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I resist that idea. I do, because they are so untrustworthy in their standards, as you see in the FCC thing. But if I could go back for just a minute to where in the culture do you find these gradual expressions of degradation? Everywhere is the answer. You find it in PBS. Famous old mystery -- wonderful BBC productions -- now have endless cycles of Prime Suspect 1, 2, 3, 4, all about snuffing women and having them tied up and degraded in chains. Utter boredom. So there's not exactly a high standard. It is everywhere.

PAUL GIGOT: But isn't there a role for -- and I would argue that politicians are going to enter this because there is a public demand. When the public says we don't like something, politicians respond. That's what they do. So you're going to see repeats of Joe Lieberman and Bill Bennett, what they did in 2000 taking on Hollywood. You might see it in surprising quarters, maybe Hilary Rodham Clinton in 2008. Isn't there a role for our political leaders to represent public frustration?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: It's a role. It's a role that gets a big platform. But I doubt that anybody listening -- people know what repels them. And there comes a line -- and I think that line is reached when there is so much vulgarity and excess -- that people say, "I am not going to watch this and it isn't interesting."

PAUL GIGOT: So what do we do? Throw up our hands?

DAN HENNINGER: Well I'll give you -- I've got it. I think there is a solution on the horizon for those of us who think there's a bit of a market dilemma here. And I think the market is probably going to solve the problem for us in the form of new technologies. TiVo is an example. TiVo is the first generation of a technology that allows you to aggregate shows on your own. The next set of technologies is going to allow private delivery of private programming. You roll your own, you get what you want. And you know what? These big media corporations are very disturbed about the likelihood of people being able to select what they want to see and what they want to watch.

PAUL GIGOT: Of course, there are also other institutions in society which are supposed to, have traditionally been inculcators of character in children and the society -- the church, schools, for example. Have they been doing their job? Or why aren't they?

KIM STRASSEL: Well this actually kind of gets to the point about government involvement, because I would argue that some of the biggest problems we have -- for instance, in schools because the government has actually been almost too involved. You know, schools used to be community-based organizations where parents worked with teachers, they set their own standards, they set everything. When everything starts coming from the top, whether it be from national unions and the rules that they sort of dictate that their teachers have to follow, or government laying out the curriculum you have to teach in different places or saying what kind of PC things you're allowed to do or not do -- that's when there becomes a huge disconnect, and parents can no longer rely on teachers any more to bring about the values and to teach in a way they hope their community day schools would.

PAUL GIGOT: They say it's not our problem. Somebody else should worry about it. Maybe let the --

DAN HENNINGER: But why do they say it's not our problem? There's an interesting legal background to this. In 1969, and then again in 1974, I believe, there were two significant Supreme Court cases, Tinker and Lopez v. Goss, which established due process for public school students. At that point principals backed off and said, if I do anything I'm going to be involved in a law suit.

Now subsequent legal decisions have pushed back some of that open authority. Except that principals now believe that the litigation hammer is always hanging over their head. And so they have backed off in imposing discipline within the school. The ACLU, if you punch it up right now, has a student rights page. And they lay out for principals and administrators what they can and cannot do on drug policy, dress codes, and personal comportment inside the school. The solution for a lot of principals has been, "I don't do this any more."

PAUL GIGOT: There has been -- we've been something of schools here -- is that there have been some interesting cultural trends moving in a positive direction that you could argue. And certainly the decline in births to unwed mothers, the abortion rate is as low as it's been since 1974, a year after Roe v. Wade passed. Crime rate is down, welfare dependency is down, in particular since the welfare reform. And you're beginning to see, are you not, Kim, a certain revival of -- especially in younger people, in joining Evangelical churches, religious churches?

KIM STRASSEL: Yeah, and this is something that I think, especially conservatives who are concerned about the state of the culture, should be happy about. I mean, that their whole philosophy is the idea that you, if left alone, if people are sort of left alone, they do end up making the right choices. And it is cause for optimism. And you do end up, like -- one of the most interesting things, there was a book that came out a couple of years ago called "The New Faithful," that talked about the number of younger people who were going back to faith, and more devout versions of faith. A lot of that had to do with their reaction to their own parents, feeling their parents were too secular, feeling their parents got divorced too often. And so there is, as sort of Susan was saying in the beginning of the show, sort of veerings back and forth.

PAUL GIGOT: I want to finish up by asking each of you one question. If you think ahead 10 years, look ahead 10 years, and ask, if we had this same conversation, and say is the culture healthier or not than it was 10 years ago, where do you think we'll be?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think it is healthier in a way. And I think 10 years from now "Desperate Housewives" will still be playing, despite anything anybody says. I think because there is a sense that you have the possibility of change, there is a battle going on for minds and hearts, and that's healthy.

DAN HENNINGER: I would say that it'll be better. The generation that is now fighting for us in Iraq and Afghanistan is the generation in their twenties that's going to be taking over society and we'll be better for it.


SUSAN LEE: I think it's fine now, and I hope it's fine in 10 years.

KIM STRASSEL: Not to be wishy-washy, but I'm not sure you can actually measure it based on, like, was it bad and getting worse. But I think some things will be better, some things will be worse.

PAUL GIGOT: All right. I've got a better. I'll take the last word.