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Smut Factory

I ENJOY WATCHING BILL O'REILLY, BUT HE COMES off better on his own show, The O'Reilly Factor, than he does when he's let loose on the world at large -- or at least on a different program. He was an awkward guest on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show recently, and he wasn't quite his usual imperiously cut-and-dried self during his special last week on media influences on children, The Corruption of the American Child. Nor was the program as illuminating a study of the subject as it might have been -- more a rant than a carefully thought-out analysis. Not that we'd expect anything less from the king of cable news. On the other hand, there was plenty for him to rant about. Drawing on examples from rock, rap, movies, TV shows, video games and Internet porn sites, O'Reilly argued that much of what now passes for entertainment is toxic, and pollutes children's minds as thoroughly as a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit would poison their lungs. "The free-enterprise system," he declared, "is robbing children of their childhood."

He might have added that it is also doing a number on adults. For instance, I can remember climbing into a cab on Fifth Avenue in New York some time during the 1980s, and being greeted by the sound of Howard Stern making loud farting noises over the driver's radio. It put me off Howard Stern for at least a decade. And now? Well, I still wouldn't want to hear Stern in a cab, but I have to admit that when I see him on television, I often find him funny.

Likewise, the first time I saw Late Night With David Letterman -- I was new to American television then -- I remember being appalled by a segment in which Letterman made fun of people his cameramen had secretly filmed on the street earlier in the day. Innocent that I was, I couldn't believe that something like that was legal, let alone amusing. But now I often find Letterman amusing. The process was the same for Beavis and Butt-head. My first reaction was, "Jesus, this is gross." But after a while, I got into the spirit of the thing and started chuckling.

Have I evolved, or devolved?

As far as the influence of media on children goes, I'm a total anomaly: I didn't watch television until I was 8. I grew up in Portugal in the 1960s, which back then was under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar. He had been in power since 1928, and censorship was almost total. Phones were tapped, mail examined. It was a police state, basically, though outwardly a charming one. The only television set I remember seeing was at our next-door neighbors' house, but it was never on -- there was nothing to watch. For me, there was almost no pop culture at all. An occasional imported comic book, a few Beatles records and, from time to time, a rare excursion to the cinema. In the morning, Gypsy women came to the door to beg. A witch lived across the street. In the car on the way to school each day, we passed three blind men walking arm in arm along the sea front as my mother quizzed me on my times tables. My best friend in school had polio. We played marbles in the dirt. It's hard to imagine such a childhood now.

One of O'Reilly's assertions is that children pick up what they glean from the media like Play-Doh. I think this is true. When my family moved to England, I watched television for the first time and immediately fell under its spell. I was particularly taken by a chimpanzee on Daktari, a program about a group of veterinarians in Africa. I pretended to be that chimpanzee for at least six months, possibly a year, maybe even two. I made chimpanzee noises, scratched my armpits and hopped around the apartment. On the whole, I found being a chimpanzee more fun than being a human. (Occasionally, I still pretend to be that chimpanzee.) Later I graduated to Batman, and flew into a rage one night when I wasn't allowed to see it. Sulking, I put on my Batman outfit and, diving off my bed -- Pow! Wham! Kaboom! -- knocked myself unconscious.

A few years later, watching the BBC, I saw my first Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers. Wearing a black cape and top hat, Harpo had just been introduced to a group of dignitaries as "The Professor." Instead of making a speech, he blew a bubble out of his mouth. I promptly fell off the sofa, laughing. Then Groucho came on, and I was finished, marked for life by self-defeating Jewish-American borscht-belt humor. "I've worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty." "These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others." "I refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member." I wrote a letter addressed to Groucho Marx, Hollywood, USA, and received a reply, thanking me for my "jolly nice" letter. I memorized entire scenes. I Groucho-walked everywhere.

I got all that from television, and the sorry excuse for a grown-up writing this column is at least partly the result. But of course I was also taught to read the classics, learn languages, analyze poetry. Rock music and drugs would later play a part in my formation, but so would D.H. Lawrence and W.B. Yeats. I was lucky. One thing O'Reilly kept hammering away at on The Corruption of the American Child is that it's a very different thing for a kid whose parents are college graduates to listen to violent rap lyrics than for a kid whose mother is unemployed and whose father took off some time during the first trimester. The reason is obvious. The college grads speak good English, they have books in the house, money available for special tutoring, a sense of history and geography, etc. In short, countervailing influences are everywhere. That they aren't in many neighborhoods and homes is something the people who market the more noxious products of pop culture prefer to ignore -- and can get away with. Outraged

THE BEST PARTS OF O'REILLY'S SHOW CAME WHEN he sat down for face-to-face interviews with such media luminaries as Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, rap moguls Russell Simmons and Damon Dash, "shock" DJs Opie and Antony, and rage rockers Marilyn Manson and Insane Clown Posse. (Sample lyric from the latter: "I stab old people, old ladies, little kids . . . I don't give a fuck! I stabbed the fat guy in the butt.") Aside from Manson, who at least appeared thoughtful for a guy who named himself after a mass murderer, most of them came off badly. Valenti appeared to have fallen asleep at the wheel about 20 years ago, oblivious to the blare of horns around him. The DJs, with their hackneyed blather about being "artists" and "pushing people's buttons" (a phrase Manson also used), were simply obnoxious. (There should be a moratorium on pushing people's buttons: We're not elevators.) As for Simmons and Dash, when O'Reilly asked them about the effect of the more grotesque rap lyrics on kids whose parents were either too busy or too irresponsible to watch out for them, their immediate response was to cast doubt on whether O'Reilly really "cares" about the lives of black people and to challenge his right to judge the songs in the first place. "Your rigid attitude about what we can do culturally is not, for me, a guideline to what I should do," said Simmons. Evidently, the preferred attitude chez Def Jam is a supine one -- best demonstrated by those ho's so prominently featured in their videos.

But perhaps the most jaw-dropping statement came from Linda McMahon, co-CEO of the World Wrestling Federation, whose viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings, include 2-year-olds. (One-year-olds are a protected species. After that, you're a "preteen.") O'Reilly asked her how she felt about young children watching the gross, mega-testosterone wrestling extravaganzas she puts on. "I don't think it's the responsibility of a programmer to try and be inside a home," she replied. Available

That struck me as an extremely strange declaration. Getting inside people's homes, not to mention their heads, is exactly what programmers try to do. But, like the other corporate honchos, McMahon refused to take any responsibility for her actions. Freedom of expression has to be protected, but what's striking is how coarse and sociopathic much of our expression has become. Sure, some of it's funny, exciting, sexy, clever -- but the overall tone is sniggeringly low and keeps getting lower. "Pushing the envelope" seems to be the only goal artists and programmers have. But where are they pushing it?


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