- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000

Actor, author and songwriter Steve Allen, 78, spoke on the power of television and the increasing amount of vulgarity in popular entertainment Friday at the National Press Club. Here are excerpts from his speech and answers he gave to questions from the audience.

Conventional wisdom if you'll pardon my Washington cliche has it that censorship is a terrible evil always to be opposed. But I think that very few people who have that opinion have arrived at it by even a casual exercise in critical thinking… . I suggest therefore that the time has come for us to reason together in the hope that we can arrive at a broader consensus as to whether it's indeed the case there is never the slightest justification for the imposition of censorship. What is indeed dangerous and is wisely opposed in almost every case is the right of any government or church to make the authoritative decision about unpopular expression. It's obvious, however, that individuals, cultures and the state make a simple and sensible distinction between purely political and philosophical rhetoric on the one hand, and expression that calls into question certain moral and ethical standards on the other. No doubt in their hearts, extremists on the right and left would dearly love to silence each other but they realize in the United States, they'd never get away with that, thanks to the Constitution …
We all love law and order and we all love freedom. But what is not as readily perceived is these two honorable concepts can never in effect be harmoniously related. They are in conflict; they are on opposite ends of a pole of speculation… . Which means every law enacted is an infringement on freedom. When we say no one has the right to drive 75 mph in a school zone, we are censoring freedom …
Another area where there is increasing demand for regulation of some sort, which includes aspects of censorship, concerns the national computer networks. No one with even a casual familiarity with the less admirable aspects of human nature could have doubted that both professional pornographers and sexual weirdos would have moved into the Internet territory at the first opportunity… . I learned only quite recently that there were some 28,000 Web sites promoting various forms of pornography. I was advised yesterday that figure is over 100,000.
In late September last year, the Federal Trade Commission issued a special warning to parents about certain Web sites that dishonestly closely duplicate legitimate ones but lead children and others into an electronic maze of pornography. The agency called the practice "page-jacking" and described it in very critical terms.
In another instance involving censorship, a few weeks ago President Clinton signed into federal law a ban against the sale of one of the more revolting examples of creative license in an already remarkably sick culture: crush videos in which mice and other small animals are actually stomped to death by women wearing heeled shoes.
Although television networks and the studios that create their fare are seen as victims of censorship, a rather hopeful note is that all of them practice it themselves. Since the beginning of television, the networks have asserted their right to blue-pencil certain portions of scripts… . They say to writers, 'You have the freedom to write whatever you want, but we have the freedom to decide whether or not to release your work, unedited, into the marketplace under our auspices.'
Any editor in the world is also a censor. The woman who calls herself Madonna appeared on the David Letterman show one night and spent 40 minutes speaking in shockingly vulgar terms. She refused to leave the studio when David made it clear he wanted her to… . The network was able, after the first few words slipped through, began to bleep out some of her more offensive words. There you had a case of censorship, imposed by CBS and Letterman's producers.
More and more demands for the last three or four years have been made to oppose the current emphasis on violent speech in popular entertainment at the same time that a separate but strangely contradictory social trend is detectable. An example being all the recent laws … intended to discourage and punish political incorrectness.
Certainly, no society has ever been so thoroughly depraved while … it preaches there must be no limitations to freedom whatever.
Q: When he spoke at this podium in January, Bob Wright, CEO of NBC, said he was not aware of any problem of vulgarity on his network. Would you comment?
A: First we must remember Mr. Wright in our prayers… . Right in the middle of the battle, he doesn't appear to hear the gunfire… . There isn't just a problem, there's a hell of a problem.
Q: How's Jay Leno doing?
A: Well, Jay does a good job. Hosting a talk show is the easiest job I think anybody ever had. Anybody can do it. If you ask questions, you are a talk show host. I have an image that many years ago on a tree stump in a jungle and there were some guys on a log to his right. I am sure they did not sit there silently. Primitive man must have had some form of language. Therefore, that was the first talk show.
Q: How's Jerry Springer doing?
A: Jerry falls into the same category of people as Howard Stern. The best description of Jerry Springer is that given a couple of months ago at a television convention by Grant Tinker, one of the more noble names in television history, when he described Mr. Springer 'as a disgrace to television.' He was right.
Q: My parents did not allow any television in the house when I grew up. Is that an option, not exposing young people to television?
A: Unfortunately, it's not really a practical solution as much of television is gloriously creative, sensational and admirable and rightly wins awards and it's also the most convenient way to keep up with important news events. Television was, for the most part, family entertainment, certainly during the glorious 1950s, still spoken of by scholars as the glorious Golden Age of television comedy. We laughed at Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar and Red Skelton and Victor Borge and not a one of them in that whole decade did anything morally questionable. There were no dirty jokes. They were not saints, but when you're on camera, you should have the responsibility as a citizen to leave the dirty stuff behind and just make people laugh.
Q: You once did a TV series on great persons in history. If you were to do that again today, who would you choose?
A: I really don't know. It's not really possible in a given moment in time to tell 50 or 1,000 years in the future who will be important. For instance, [poetess] Emily Dickinson went to her grave unrecognized. All the Americans alive, including scholars, simply missed the boat. You might say: how did we find out? Well, the English told us. There may be someone who invented a cure for AIDS last Tuesday, but I don't know about him yet.
Prominent reputations are like stock, they rise and fall… . Sometimes it is better to let the dust of history settle and then make the bookings.

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