The Right Takes A Media Giant To Political Task

Five years ago it was the rap group 2 Live Crew and a song with lurid lyrics. Later it was the rapper Ice-T and a cut called "Cop Killer." Then there was Madonna and her book, "Sex." Time Warner Inc., the producer of each of these products, is all too familiar with getting beat up for supposedly debasing the nation's popular culture. But that was child's play. Last week Time Warner got elevated to a level of pariah-hood that only Murphy Brown could appreciate. Sen. Bob Dole and former education secretary William Bennett singled out the media giant as the leading purveyor of what Bennett called "filth." They cited in particular Warner's gangsta-rap music, an offshoot of mainstream rap, whose lyrics Bennett described as "violent and misogynistic."

Much to Time Warner's dismay, the dual attack, especially Dole's Hollywood speech taking on the company's explicit movies and music, resonated. Executives bristled that they were the victims of conservative political expediency, but the broadside no doubt hurt--"Slime Warner," critics called it--and it left executives wondering about any long-term damage. "We can't recall such a personalized, ad hominem attack on a single corporation," said Michael Fuchs, head of the Warner Music Group.

The campaign to go after Time Warner was largely the work of Bennett, author of the best-selling "The Book of Virtues" and a director of the conservative lobbying group Empower America. After reading a column in U.S. News & World Report assailing the company, he teamed with another rap critic, C. De-Lores Tucker, head of the National Political Congress of Black Women. Tucker, attending last month's Time Warner shareholders meeting, quoted hard-edged lyrics from company artists Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg. "African-American women got tired of their children calling them 'hos, bitches and sluts," Tucker told NEWSWEEK. Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin, conceding that some lyrics Could be considered offensive, told shareholders the company would work to toughen standards for rap music.

But Bennett and Tucker wanted a complete ban on demeaning lyrics. After the shareholders meeting the two met with Time Warner executives, including Levin and Fuchs -- and the session turned raucous. Tucker demanded that Fuchs read lyrics from "Big Man With a Gun," a rap song by Time Warner's Nine Inch Nails ("Nothing can stop me now. Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot. I'm going to come all over you. Me and my f-----gun"). Fuchs declined, saying he didn't want to engage in "theater."

'Baloney': Bennett, according to notes taken by his aide, was characteristically pugnacious. At one point he asked executives: "Are you folks morally disabled?" Time Warner participants later described Bennett as "in-your-face insulting." According to the Bennett notes, one Time Warner executive, when asked if he considered the lyrics to be vulgar, responded, "Art is hard to interpret." Sources said Levin walked out after Bennett uttered, "Bale-hey." Last week Bennett mailed letters to Time Warner board members demanding that the company stop producing the offending rap music.

Time Warner complains it is being singled out unfairly. It controls only 8 percent of the rap-music market and is the only major record company that's not foreign-owned. But the more urgent question for Time Warner is whether the pressure will force it to drop gangsta rap altogether. That isn't likely. Even though it is a tiny part of the company's revenues, abandoning it could risk losing rappers--and mainstream artists--to competing labels. And Time Warner claims that banning gangsta rap, a largely black phenomenon, would deny minorities an artistic outlet.

From a public-relations standpoint, Time Warner hopes that if the controversy continues, it will center on the entire industry, not just its company. That's what happened late in the week, when the culture wars spread to the Walt Disney Co. Dole's wife, Elizabeth, announced she planned to sell more than $15,000 of Disney stock because of "Priest" -- a movie produced by a Disney subsidiary that her husband has savaged for indecency. And as much as Dole's criticism may have damaged the company's image in the short run, Time Warner executives know that this week the senator plans to shepherd through a telecommunications bill that would benefit the corporation's cable-TV operations. When you're the world's largest media company, you win some and you lose some.