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Politicians are usually at their most pernicious when they're spouting homespun homilies for C-SPAN. So you knew the republic was in danger when, during the October 20 Senate Commerce Committee hearing on television violence, chairman Ernest Hollings scolded TV executives for stalling on promises to take the gore off the small screen.
"There's an old saying down home," declared the South Carolinian in his Sunday-go-to-meetin' drawl. "There's no education in the second kick of a mule."
Hollings' timing couldn't have been better. MTV had just consigned Beavis and Butt-head to a late-night slot after an Ohio mother accused the pyromaniacal protagonists of inspiring her five-year-old son to start a fire that killed her baby daughter. And Disney had just snipped footage from its new release The Program after several teens were killed or maimed while emulating a scene in which drunken jocks lie down in the middle of a busy highway.
The committee was armed with remedies to address this outbreak of carnage that Hollywood allegedly inspired. Hollings is sponsoring a measure to prohibit "violent video programming" during hours when young kids are watching. The move piggybacks nicely with the Federal Communications Commission's ceaseless campaign to sterilize the airwaves by dramatically restricting the hours when "indecent" material may be broadcast. There's also legislation pending that would obligate the FCC to issue a quarterly "violence report card" and that would mandate violence-warning labels.
But, as it turned out, the real star of the hearing was Attorney General Janet Reno, the architect of one of the bloodiest real-life dramas in recent memory -- the Waco inferno, carried live on CNN. Reno put the Clinton administration firmly behind the effort to rein in make-believe mayhem by warning pointedly that "the regulation of violence is constitutionally permissible."
Reno's willingness to threaten de facto censorship was a stunner. "To lay this at the feet of the media is a real cop-out," says attorney Harvey Silverglate, who writes about civil liberties for the Boston Phoenix. "Is this what we got rid of Meese for?"
"It makes liberals like me -- who for 40 years have listened to conservatives who want to censor -- very nervous," adds Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television and the nation's leading advocate for more healthful programming for kids. "I think we have to be very careful not to take concern for children as an excuse to do in certain kinds of speech."
Agreeing with her is Jay Winston, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. He's working with the entertainment industry to produce more "pro-social" programming that deals with subjects like conflict resolution and the consequences of lax gun-control laws. "I think there are real serious First Amendment considerations," he says, wondering aloud whether creative programs that happen to include violence will fall victim to proposed rating and grading systems.
The Commerce Committee hearings had the tone of a politically safe witch hunt. With street violence and family disintegration defying solution, the politicians deflected attention by choosing a popular target.
"It's clear that Congress and the public and all of us in the broadcasting industry are seriously fed up with the madness that with a malignant fidelity stalks our streets," he told the Hollings committee. "I think there's much more to the collapse of the assumed normalities in our society than a television set."
It's not that television executives deserve sympathy. They were at their sniveling worst during the hearings -- whether it was Fox official George Vradenburg suggesting that the few public-service announcements his network has managed to crank out puts Fox on the side of the angels, or CBS Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer complaining that if broadcasters are hit with new anti-violence regulations, their cable competitors will laugh all the way to the blood bank. These guys would disembowel the family dog in prime time for the right numbers.
And anti-TV-violence forces make a compelling argument that there are fewer intact families around today to establish the proper boundaries for children's viewing habits. Speaking during the hearings, Gael Davis, of the National Council of Negro Women, warned that the "television has truly become our electronic babysitter" for a generation of latchkey kids.
But is an infringement on the spirit of the First Amendment the correct response to systemic social problems? After all, the same politicians suddenly reaching for the off switch waited years before passing a family-leave bill, disinvested in our cities, continue to go soft on gun control, and are still battling over abortion in the face of overwhelming public support for choice.
Implicit in the incidents involving Beavis and Butt-head and The Program is the idea that the media are responsible for the acts of their audience. That's a powerful weapon for censors, whether they be Ernest Hollings or those who point to Ted Bundy's admission that dirty pictures made him do it as proof that pornography should be banned.
In truth, there is a rough consensus among thinking people on the cause-and-effect issue. Though there is probably some link between massive doses of violence in the media and real-life aggression, it stretches credulity to blame specific acts of violence on specific programming. The most likely result is desensitization -- a serious problem, but a long way from transforming a child into a mass murderer. Even film critic Michael Medved, Hollywood's relentlessly obnoxious crusader to eradicate godless gore from the screen, admits, "I don't ever say TV and movies cause violence.... I say they contribute to violence."
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.)