Violence, TV and Demagoguery

Congressional attempts to ax TV violence may put the First Amendment under the gun

Part of the problem may be the growth of the blame game -- our belief that the fault lies not in ourselves but in heavy metal, bad bosses and, now, our TV sets. A quick look at a March 1960 TV Guide reveals the following lineup of shoot-'em-up cowboy shows: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Bat Masterson, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Cheyenne, The Lawman, Laramie, The Texan, Sugarfoot, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Shotgun Slade and Rawhide. And that doesn't even count the equally numerous cops-and-robbers shows. Yet in those days, no one thought to blame teen violence on rowdy fare -- or, for that matter, on Rowdy Yates, Clinton Eastwood's Rawhide character.

Another flaw in the logic of the thought police is the contention that there is a clear delineation between "good violence" and "bad violence" -- the former being depictions of real-life violence and the latter consisting of "gratuitous fantasy violence." Fox's Vradenberg went so far as to laud his network's "reality" shows, like Cops and America's Most Wanted, as positive portrayals of blood and guts. But who's to say that the glut of reality shows, tabloid-TV re-enactments and increasingly violent local newscasts -- conveying the unmistakable impression that the real world is a foreboding, dangerous place -- is somehow less harmful than a staged shootout between fake characters on NYPD Blue or a blood-spurting decapitation on The Simpsons' "The Itchy & Scratchy Show"?

During a recent Nickelodeon program on TV violence, one local news reporter explaining his station's "if it bleeds, it leads" philosophy noted that cameras only get sent to fatal auto accidents. Cut to an interview with a kid who's far more disturbed by the news than by prime-time programming.

"I get scared," says the youngster, "because it's going to happen to me."
"Violence in news," adds another, "is a lot scarier than fictional violence on TV."

Efforts to regulate network television and some cable programming (Hollings' bill wouldn't affect HBO, Showtime or similar pay-TV services) are also doomed by advancing technology. "Our read is that with 500 channels and video on demand, this is not going to be effective," says Kristan Van Hook, a policy analyst for the House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee. "It would only apply to broadcasters, who don't have that much violent programming before 9 p.m." That panel's chairman, U.S. Representative Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), has introduced a bill that would mandate the installation of a "V chip" that could block violent programming.

"I don't think television is really the problem," says James Fox, dean of Northeastern's College of Criminal Justice. "To a generation that's used to seeing movies like The Terminator, what's on television is mild." What worries Fox are the increasingly violent video games and the impact of the VCR, which has not only created a market for low-grade slasher flicks that never make the movie theater, but also allows kids to view the gory scene of their choice over and over again.

And finally, there are those nasty slippery-slope issues: Who decides what is too violent? During the hearings, Hollings expressed horror at a slapstick barroom-brawl scene in the CBS comedy Love and War -- to which Montana Senator Conrad Burns responded with a chuckle, If you were raised in Montana, that didn't look too violent."

Who decides where it all ends? "If you were concerned about children and speech, next thing you'd do is have no speech relating to sex," warns Peggy Charren. "And then what do you do about textbooks and comic books and about Heather Has Two Mommies?"

George Gerbner, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School and a leading expert on television violence, was not impressed by the Commerce Committee's dog-and-pony show. The bills "all assume that either labeling or listing or microchip censorship is the right approach to the problem," he says. Instead, he says, the only meaningful remedy is to "look at the structure of an industry" that can't figure out a way to make money other than by reveling in gore.

"The bills that are now pending are politically productive," adds Gerbner, "but not a solution."

That's because our esteemed political leaders are busy doing what they do best -- seeking simplistic answers to complicated questions. It's out of the same cynical playbook as Dan Quayle's desperate '92 campaign gambit to pin the breakdown of "family values" on a fictional TV newswoman.

"The most likely scenario," says Andrew Schwartzman, director of the Washington-based Media Access Project, "is Congress will pass some horrible legislation, it will get thrown out, and we'll start all over again."

(Mark Jurkowitz is a reporter with the Boston Phoenix.)

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