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Stop sidestepping the standards

Talk about your ingrates.

On Sunday night the entertainment industry virtually passes over the Mafia in the The Sopranos to give nine Emmys to the politicians in The West Wing, a show that treats pols better even than Oprah Winfrey does.

Then Monday morning, what happens? The government kneecaps the industry for marketing violence to kids.

As if that weren't bad enough, Hollywood antes up more than 13-million bucks for the Democrats, much of it to enable Al and Joe to hawk their wares on TV. In return, the duo lambastes them for false and deceptive advertising.

What would Tony Soprano have to say about all that?

This is the gist of the FTC report: After combing the industry's own incriminating papers, they conclude that the entertainment folks are violating their own ratings systems.

The people who market music, movies, video games and TV shows put together an assortment of guidelines to help parents monitor the level of violence the kids are exposed to. And then they deliberately execute an end run around parents to market no-nos to kids.

Eighty percent of the violent movies, 70 percent of the violent electronic games and nearly all the music with explicit lyrics were in one way or another marketed and/or targeted to the under-17 market.

One infamous memo stated its goal for an R-rated movie: "to find the elusive teen target audience and make sure everyone between the ages of 12-18 was exposed to the film." Another memo positioned its M-rated video game at "males 12-17."

None of this should be a surprise to parents who have heard Eminem emanating from a child's bedroom or discovered that "all the kids" went to the R-rated movie at the Cineplex.

But now we know that the industry is actually marketing against, over and around its own alleged "standards." To use everyone's favorite analogy, it's like the tobacco companies pitching forbidden underage customers. Ride 'em Joe Camel.

Of course, at their best, ratings are a lousy defense system against incoming entertainment missiles anyway. A label on the cigarette package is nowhere nearly as effective as the ad showing the lifestyles of the thin, glamorous and nicotine addicted. And similarly the ratings on movies, CDs or video games _ why do they call the worst stuff Adult and Mature? _ probably do more to entice teens than screen them out.

So the FTC's suggestion for a unified rating system is fine, but not very helpful to parents who have become nothing but roadkill on the way to the box office. The major point is that the entertainment industry is deliberately, knowingly, undermining the culture and values that parents want for kids.

In his generic sound bite answer to concerns about violence, Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, "If movies are causing moral decay, then crime ought to be going up, but crime is going down." But nobody claims a direct correlation between a murder movie and a murder rate. The effect of violence is far more subtle and far more pervasive.

It makes the world seem a more dangerous place. It makes kids less sensitive to hurt. It makes aggression seem "cool." It promotes the bizarre notion that violence is entertaining. It not only heightens but exports a thoroughly warped view of American culture to the entire world.

This is not just a children's issue or a mother's issue, though women may be more appalled at the "entertainment" that portrays us as victims of rap and rape. More appalled when our sons and daughters are fed these visions and roles.

It's still an issue, however, that has touched deep feelings of impotence among parents, even those who don't believe in censorship and do watch The Sopranos.

The entertainment industry has been caught. Caught making a mockery of self-regulation. Caught in an end run around parents. Caught in a power grab for kids. At the very, very least the industry has to be held to the standards it sets for children and be forced to keep the promises it made to mothers and fathers.

"Frankly, if I were running for office, I'd be trashing the movie industry myself," says a cynical Valenti. But even when Hollywood is smarting from ungrateful pols, it doesn't make a very convincing whipping boy.

This season, whoever finds a way to empower parents may find himself with more than a cameo role in the West Wing.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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