The nation's self-proclaimed largest distributor of pornography became the latest target in the Bush Administration's escalating war on indecency on Nov. 4. Edward J. Wedelstedt, known in the trade as Mr. Big, copped a plea to serve 13 months in jail for fraud and distributing X-rated movies across state lines. "This guilty plea is a warning to others," said Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher.
Pornographer perp walks are nothing new, but the smut smackdown is starting to spread beyond red-light districts. The Administration has launched a broad assault on sexual content that targets the entertainment industry from Hollywood producers to hotels. The offensive includes creation of a Justice Dept. Obscenity Prosecution Task Force and an anti-porn squad at the FBI, a crackdown on indecent programming by the new Federal Communications Commission chairman, and a wave of indecency legislation.
The push aims to pressure companies involved in films such as Wedding Crashers, TV shows such as Hot Properties and Nip/Tuck, and soft-core cable porn to tone down or face a backlash. But while Christian conservatives cheer, business is gearing up to take on the Smut Squad. On Oct. 28 a powerful coalition of 30 trade groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Motion Picture Assn., and the American Hotel & Lodging Assn., took up the banner to fight part of a Justice Dept. proposal flying through Congress. The legislation is aimed at child pornography traffickers, but it casts a wider net. Under current law, producers whose films depict actual sex acts must certify that performers are 18 or older. The bill would apply that rule to R-rated movies and other shows that include simulated sex. It would also force distributors, from TV networks to Net service providers to hotels, to attest that no youths were involved.
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Business' complaints have elicited little sympathy from the Administration. The growing popularity of broadband, video cell phones, and peer-to-peer technology has pushed the indecency issue to the front burner, says Justice Dept. spokesman Paul Bresson. And the porn trade has been quick to capitalize on new gadgets: Within days of the debut of Apple (AAPL ) Computer Inc.'s video iPod, X-rated filmmakers had posted thousands of two-minute skin flicks for download.
The FCC is already working to clean up old tech. Chairman Kevin Martin, a longtime smut critic, recently hired one of broadcasting's most vehement foes, Penny Young Nance, ex-president of the Kids First Coalition. Her allies in the family-values world helped drive the number of complaints about TV and radio indecency to 1.4 million -- a count inflated by form letters, critics say -- in 2004. Her first move inside the FCC was to set up a Web site with easy instructions on how to protest raunchy shows. Now Martin is set to clear up a backlog of indecency complaints, giving broadcasters a first look at what will pass muster.
Many in Congress want to give regulators more power. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is crafting a bill to raise fines and give the FCC three-strikes authority to revoke repeat offenders' broadcast licenses.
Business is fighting back. Even the skin-flick trade is starting to come out of the shadows. On Nov. 5 its trade group, the Free Speech Coalition, hired former Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben as a lobbyist. Business executives aren't about to climb into bed with the porn industry. But in the eyes of social conservatives, they already have.
By Lorraine Woellert, with Catherine Yang and Eamon Javers in Washington