Why Was Chris Dodd Chosen to Helm the MPAA?

The Motion Picture Association of America's selection of Chris Dodd as its new head is a puzzling move.

Obviously, Dodd brings no industry expertise to the table, but this is immaterial. The job was shaped by the long tenure of Jack Valenti, LBJ’s political fixer par excellence, who functioned as the industry’s ambassador to Washington, using its wealth to influence the tribunes of the people and its glamor to seduce them.

Valenti’s successor was former Democratic Congressman and ex-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, who decided a year ago that he wanted to spend more time on other interests, without waiting for the end of his contract.  The stories at the time said the industry thought his anti-piracy efforts insufficient, but it is hard to know in what way, and he did last six years in the job.

Glickman’s unglamorous Kansas demeanor seems a more probable friction point, and Politico speculated that his reasonableness may have hurt him. Valenti was fiercely partisan and the industry liked that, and may have grown impatient with anything less. This explanation makes sense. Hollywood is a land of emotion and illusion, not logic and reality, and on the intellectual property and social issues at the top of its priority list, it is fiercely self-righteous and contemptuous of all dissent.

In this framework, Dodd makes sense, because he certainly fits the mold of being self-righteous, contemptuous, and devoted to emotion and illusion rather than logic and reality.

No one is more loathed by Republicans, whether of the Tea Party stripe or from the intellectual free market wing. Both groups regard Dodd as bearing unique responsibility for the corruption that is Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the consequent national financial disaster, and a financial reform bill that was an ill-considered, interest-group driven hodgepodge for which we will be paying for decades.

For those who focus on social issues and the moral decline of America, Dodd is remembered as the bottom slice of bread in Ted Kennedy’s waitress sandwich, together with other escapades of the congressional rat pack. It was a long time ago, but search engines have good memory.

Big Government was the first conservative blogsite off the mark with “Corrupt Government-Hollywood Complex Worsens With MPAA Appointment of Chris Dodd,” which emphasized Hollywood’s political imbalance and various past favors the government has done for the industry.

The story did not mention the two big areas, though. One is the issue of subsidies given for motion picture production by various states. Michael Kinsley wrote this week in Politico:

New Mexico under Gov. Richardson was a pioneer in this field. In 2002, it began offering a credit of 15 percent — later increased to 25 percent — of the cost of making a movie in New Mexico (not counting star salaries and the mite paid to writers). Now, 42 states have followed its lead. New York has gone as high as 30 percent. These credits can generally be transferred, saved or used for other things, so it’s no problem if a particular movie doesn’t make money.

For the Tea Parties, or for Republican governors, such programs are the equivalent of trolling a steak though a dog pound. So let’s see, who shall we send out to defend the steak? Why not Chris Dodd? What could go wrong?

Beyond its greed for direct subsidies, Hollywood’s big issue with the government is the protection of intellectual property. On this issue, progressives are split. The world of legal academia, lefties to a man/woman, is quite anti-IP. Silicon Valley and its clones like patents, with some reservations, but are skeptical of copyright because the more material people can access the more hardware and bandwidth they need. The 800-pound gorilla Google wants everything, including content, to be a commodity so that money is made only by attaching ads. Its position is to talk about how much it loves intellectual property in content, while opposing all efforts to make enforcement of IP rights practicable.

Hollywood loves copyright. It owns enough congresspeople to get serious Hill attention, and its hefty political contributions ensure that executive branch doors are open at all times, so usually it can safely ignore the rantings on this issue of its liberal bedfellows.

The current big content issue concerns draft legislation to allow the government to deal peremptorily with pirate websites, in particular those based overseas and thus beyond the reach of conventional U.S. legal action. The issues involve not just digital piracy of entertainment but counterfeit goods of all kinds, including pharmaceuticals and sensitive chipsets, and -- speaking of odd bedfellows -- the content industry and the Chamber of Commerce are united on this one, and have secured substantial bipartisan sponsorship.

But the substantive and political issues are very tough. The proposals would allow the government to take immediate action to block pirate websites, and to enlist and sometimes compel the help of all parts of the Internet ecosystem -- service providers, domain name registries, payment networks, and advertising placers.

Obviously, there are questions of over-reach in the definition of offending sites, of mechanisms to prevent errors and to correct those that occur, and of limiting the demands on the other Internet players. Even those who are property rights hawks regard this law as a deadly minefield, and want to tread with great care. Those who are skeptical of IP anyway, like much of the tech community, regard it as an outrage.

So Hollywood needs to woo both its own usual allies as well as its usual opposition. It needs support of more than the business groups in the Chamber.

Courting the Republican opposition starts with a big handicap. Hollywood has never supported property rights as a general institution. It favors its own property, period. In terms of protecting land, or the right to make a living, or sunk investment capital, or anything else, Hollywood never met a progressive program of rapine and plunder that it would not support.

It has a habit of coming to Republicans and saying, “Well this is a property rights issue and you favor property rights, so you are bound by your principles to help us even though, since we have no principles, we are not bound to reciprocate on your problems.”

This game has gotten old, and Republicans are getting reluctant to play. One hears, increasingly, that the proper response should be, “Yes, we favor property rights, but we’ll make an exception for yours.”

Given this disquiet, from the standpoint of the business firms concerned with the very big problem of counterfeit goods, it is not clear that the alliance with Hollywood remains a plus. It might be easier to draft legislation that dealt only with counterfeits and not with digital piracy, both technically and because the content people may be alienating more supporters than they bring in.

So on all counts, the choice of Dodd is odd. Why bring in someone renowned for a total tin ear in hearing arguments for the other side? And on an issue that requires a high level of reassurance about thoughtfulness, honesty, and fair dealing, why a spokesman regarded as silly, corrupt, and (worse) unpunished? Why make your allies question your value?

Perhaps there is some realpolitik here that escapes easy view, but it seems unlikely. Hollywood may love illusion, but a grounding in reality has its points.