Imagesbusters, the Sequel

Free Market Violence

Jonathan Rowe


I was surprised that Todd Gitlin chose to scold congressional Democrats for trying to tackle TV violence ("Imagebusters: The Hollow Crusade Against TV Violence," Winter 1994). His insights regarding the media are astute, as usual. But his arguments against congressional action are mostly beside the point, and his superior and disparaging tone is not helpful. Gitlin dismisses concern about TV violence as a middle-class neurosis, a revival of the "iconophobia" that arose early in the century with the arrival of motion pictures. He ridicules senators addressing this issue as inferior intellects who aren't up to facing real issues like gun control.

Well, so what if the people who raised the issue early in the century happened to be middle class? The question is whether they were onto something, which they were. Similarly, what difference does it make that some advocates of action on TV violence are not strong on gun control? Regrettably, Gitlin gets so stuck in the disparagement mode that he never gets to the real issue: Are there ways to deal with violence in the media that do not compromise free speech, do not give more power to government censors or expert panels, but rather give more power to parents and citizens generally?

There are, and it's important to talk about them. Media violence isn't just about kids and crime. It's also about citizenship in a media age. Ultimately, it's about the chasm between the Right's family-values polemics and its free market hedonism, which gives rise to the very values it deplores on the tube.

Legislation isn't always the best answer, of course, especially where First Amendment values are concerned. But sometimes new laws are needed to enable citizens to express their views; the First Amendment does not exist for the media alone. It took legislation, after all, to create the modern corporation, including those in the mass media. The broadcast and cable industries are built on legislation, too, and more will be needed to establish the "information superhighway." Now isn't it possible that legislation is needed to right the balance and to give citizens more tools to deal with the media deluge that government helps create?

Gitlin seems to think that to address television violence precludes action on other fronts. That is silly. It hardly needs saying that the epidemic of violence in America has many sources and that Congress must do many things to reduce it. Even the toughest gun control conceivable would not make crime disappear tomorrow, any more than action on TV violence would (or more jobs and better schools, for that matter.) Besides, Gitlin is just plain wrong in suggesting that TV violence is a refuge from gun control. Some members of Congress are strong advocates on both fronts.

Free speech is a more serious concern. But to make Arnold Schwarzenegger the poster child for the First Amendment is a stretch. One could argue just as well that guns and gore are impediments to free expression, a kind of toxic placebo that crowds out a broad range of alternatives.

As we all know, the media corporations that squeal about censorship practice it every day, in news as well as programming. They censor out zaftig female newscasters and bad news about corporate owners or sponsors. Back in the '50s, the networks censored reports on the health effects of smoking. Cigarette sponsors prescribed heavy doses of video violence instead. "Although other crimes may be introduced, somebody must be murdered," read the instructions to writers for one early CBS show called Man Against Crime, which was sponsored by Camel cigarettes.

In other words, the choice is not between free speech and censorship. It's between the corporate media's impediments on free speech and a broader framework in which the viewing public has a more effective say. Restraints on violence, if properly crafted to amplify public opinion rather than set loose government censors, could actually encourage a flowering of creativity on the tube.

Regrettably, Gitlin doesn't explore this possibility. Instead he follows the industry in assuming that all approaches will lead to heavy-handed censorship. Next thing you know, the Gestapo will be at our doors to confiscate TV Guide and Shakespeare will be banished from the tube (as though the networks hadn't banished him already).

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That's more silliness. The V-chip, promoted by Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, is one solution based on parent and citizen power, rather than censorship. It's basically just a high-tech lock that would return control of the TV set to parents. Critics suggest that parents are lazy: if you don't want the kids to watch, just turn off the set. That's a fair point, for well-off families with a parent--or servant--at home. But working and single parents can't stand guard at the set 24 hours a day. The V-chip wouldn't violate free speech and would give parents a more effective way to turn violence off.

Another approach is the one sponsored by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, for whom I work. Dorgan's bill would provide information to parents and others about the violence level of prime-time and children's shows, including who sponsors the shows. Nonprofit groups would conduct the surveys through small federal grants. They would be done four times a year, including at least one sweeps week. They would not purport to judge shows or evaluate the context of the violence. Rather, they would simply alert parents to shows they might want to take a closer look at. Contrary to media protestations, Shakespeare would be safe. He might even get to make an occasional appearance.

Finally, why does Gitlin think it's such a bad idea for Democrats to talk about family values? For years, conservatives have blamed liberals for the erosion of those, along with many other things that should be laid at the feet of the executives who attend their $10,000-a-plate dinners. A columnist for the Washington Times even blamed the public fixation on Tonya Harding and the Bobbits on the "liberal media."


Talk about projecting one's own faults onto the other guy. The media circus surrounding Tonya et al. was not the work of "liberals." It was the "marketplace" in action--corporate media style. It's what happens when enterprise is driven solely by a desire to make money. Dan Quayle was right: the media generally embody crummy values. Where he's wrong, and downright cowardly along with the rest of the Right, is in the nature of those crummy values and where they point the finger.

Instead of reflexively defending Murphy Brown or violence on TV, progressives should pursue the underlying premise of the Right's critique. When a reviewer for one right-wing journal proclaims that TV does not reflect the nation's values but seeks to "move audiences towards the media industry's vision of values," that's a startling admission. It's saying--free market theory notwithstanding--that corporate producers pursue their own agendas and don't just serve the needs of their customers. Hmmm. What about oil companies, the packaging industry, and all the rest?

That's a debate that progressives should be eager to engage. When the overwhelming majority of Americans think there's too much violence on TV but the media gives it to them anyway, it says as much about mass markets and corporate power as it does about the media.

So let's hold them to their own polemics. The right likes to talk about responsibility. How about some responsibility where the corporate media and its advertisers are concerned? The right likes to talk about the sanctity of the home and family. How about helping families close their doors to the incessant barrage of the commercial culture? This isn't just politics. It's a real problem in America, and one that Democrats should start to address--not least because Republicans won't.



The Either/Or Fallacy

Sissela Bok


Todd Gitlin takes aim at liberals who advocate steps to reduce media violence. He blames them for making common cause with Dan Quayle and other conservatives in efforts to "demonize the media." He points to the naivet‚ of assuming that the media are the main obstacles to equality and justice and domestic tranquility. The message behind "the clangor of current alarms about television violence," he claims, seems to be, "Guns don't kill people, picture tubes do."

No sense of guilt need ensue, however, for either liberals or conservatives who ignore ideological boundaries as they speak out against media violence. The fact is that the great majority of Americans, no matter what their political persuasion, now view the levels of television violence in America with alarm. According to a Times Mirror Center survey made public in March 1993, the pro- portion of Americans who regard TV violence as harmful to society has risen from 64 percent in 1983 to 80 percent in 1993. In December 1993, the Los Angeles Times reported on a survey showing that "almost 4 out of 5 Americans believe violence in television programs directly contributes to the amount of violence in society."

Most liberals who hold such beliefs, moreover, fully share Gitlin's concern over the havoc wrought by firearms in our society. Far from imagining that picture tubes, not guns, kill people or that the media are the main obstacles to domestic tranquillity, most of them would applaud his call for serious debate about guns and bullets. Conservatives, too, are shifting on this issue. Increasingly, Americans are concluding that one-dimensional approaches to the multiple roots of violence are bound to fail. As Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, co-author with Michaele Weissman of Deadly Consequences, insists: "It's not an either/or. It's not guns or media or parents or poverty."

Gitlin himself accepts most of these factors as contributing to the present levels of violence. He would presumably include them in the serious debate about guns and bullets that he rightly sees as indispensable. Why not, then, also include the role of TV violence? Why single out Attorney General Janet Reno, Senator Paul Simon, and others who have sounded the alarm as suffering from "iconophobia and moral panic"?

Gitlin's summary dismissal of their arguments is the more surprising since he expressly agrees with them that there are links between TV violence and societal violence. He refers, as they do, to Violence and Youth, the 1993 report commissioned by the American Psychological Association, and he quotes its unequivocal conclusion regarding the correlation between higher levels of viewing violence on television and increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.

But correlation, Gitlin points out, "is not necessarily cause." We can't know how much societal violence is actually caused by media violence. Yet our inability to pinpoint cause and effect so precisely has not stood in the way of discussing and promoting policies to curtail cigarette smoking and drunk driving; it is not clear, therefore, why it should block policy debates about TV violence. Indeed, the television industry has already taken seriously the need to curtail the glamorization of smoking and of drunk driving on its programs, without requiring absolute documentation of the causative links between TV viewing and higher incidence of such conduct.

An approach to causation more commonly used in considering societal hazards is that of probabilistic causation. Viewed in this perspective, it is not necessary that a suspected risk, such as the cigarette smoking that is thought to play a causal role with respect to lung cancer, produce that effect in all or even most cases, nor that it be the only or the greatest cause of that effect. Rather, the more appropriate standard is, as law professor Fred Schauer points out, that it "increases the incidence of the effect for a population and increases the likelihood of the effect in an individual case."

Even so, Gitlin suggests, the harmful effects that can be linked to TV viewing are not nearly so great as to justify the concern by Reno. He estimates that the "copy-cat crimes" reported in the media result in no more than 100 deaths per year, or "0.28 percent of the total of 36,000 murders, accidents, and suicides committed by gunshot in the United States in 1992."

Other commentators, taking more than copy-cat crimes into account, have arrived at sharply differing figures. Psychiatrist Brandon S. Centerwall has concluded from large-scale epidemiological studies of homicide in America and abroad that "if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed . . . [v]iolent crime would be half of what it now is." If so, there would be 10,000 fewer homicides today, he suggests, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults. Still others have estimated that TV programs may contribute incrementally to 10 percent of violent crime.

All the more reason, given such diverging claims regarding the harm from television violence, not to leave its role out of serious public policy debate--the kind of debate that Gitlin already advocates with respect to guns and bullets. Such a debate also should consider the cumulative effects of exposure of children to violence, not only on television but in their homes and in communities: the harm to children from witnessing violence, even when they are not themselves beaten or otherwise abused, is too often neglected.

But Gitlin has a further reason to view television violence as receiving disproportionate attention. He suggests that concern about its role is not only misplaced, given the low levels of societal harm he attributes to it, but an evasion of the genuine issues at stake. People engaged in "the symbolic crusade against media violence . . . are saying, in effect, that they either don't know how to, or do not dare, do anything serious about American violence."

For children, however, there is nothing purely symbolic about television. They are unable, through at least the age of three or four, to distinguish between fact and fantasy; even older children rarely manage to keep "real life" violence and vicarious violence in watertight compartments-- least of all those for whom the similarities between what they see on the street and on television are only too evident. The experiences of children who know violence at close hand testify to the role of television violence not as a unique risk factor but as one interacting with many others; even, at times, as the only "safe" activity for children living with dangers no one ought to have to endure in our society.

Still, Gitlin's is a natural first reaction for anyone convinced that TV violence is dwarfed by other causal factors such as poverty, family breakdown, the availability of firearms, or substance abuse: Why not begin with what is truly important, rather than waste time and energy on the contents of TV programming? Indeed, critics of gun control level the same type of accusation against those who, like Gitlin, stress the devastating role of guns in our society. To these critics, the focus on guns is unlikely to make much of a dent in reducing crime and merely distracts attention from the real causes of violence and serious remedies.

Such criticisms are valuable insofar as they caution against undue stress on any one causal factor and against assumptions that only one remedy is therefore needed; but not when they are used for summary dismissal of any such factor. It is as important not to dismiss or downplay factors prematurely in the case of violence as when it comes to other complex, multidimensional social problems. Take heart disease: to be sure, there are disagreements about how best to reduce its prevalence; but few critics maintain that, just because some risk factors such as smoking or heredity or cholesterol contribute more than others to this prevalence, there is reason to leave the latter out of consideration. On the contrary, research and inquiry clearly have to continue regarding each one, including those thought to be of lesser magnitude.

In the past few years, scholars, community advocates, health care professionals, and public officials have increasingly come to view the problems of violence from a public health perspective, in addition to legal and other perspectives. The public health perspective, long familiar with respect to heart disease, cancer, motor vehicle injuries, and other major causes of death and disability, allows a wide-ranging and integrated exploration of the incidence of different forms of violence, of possible risk factors, and of approaches to risk reduction and prevention.

Such a public health perspective serves as a refreshing antidote to any urge either to address complex problems in terms of only one risk factor or to dismiss concern with any one factor on the grounds that it is not the only one or even the most significant one. Too often in the past, the discussion of violence in America has petered out in stand-offs among advocates of one or more "real" causes and "serious" remedies.

If the current debate is to have a chance to go beyond such stand-offs, it must take the public health perspective into account while also giving voice to the individuals with most at stake in the outcome of the violence debate--the parents and neighborhood groups struggling against sometimes overwhelming odds, the organizations mobilizing to combat violence, the pediatricians and social workers who work to help individuals overcome its consequences, and above all, the children who know violence in their daily lives.



Todd Gitlin Responds:


Rowe says "the real issue" is violence in the media. This is the nub of our disagreement. To me, the real issue is flesh-and-blood violence. On a scale of significant American evils, I rank violence in the media low--certainly lower than poverty, chronic unemployment, murder, rape, the devastation of cities, the battering of women.

Let's get serious. Where are the urgent-sounding, now-or-never press conferences on these subjects? Where are the media exposes? Where is the steady passionate outcry? Where are the petitions? Where are the filibusters against any spending bill that doesn't contain a measure to create a Civilian Conservation Corps to put unemployed youth--at greatest risk of killing and being killed--to constructive work?

I don't, as Rowe alleges, think "that to address television violence precludes action on other fronts." But I observe that we have been through decades of these cycles of alarm about television violence while the actual devastation of our cities proceeds like a long, wasting disease. I have just had the depressing experience of reviewing several academic studies of the association between television and violence from the early 1970s. Wearily, each of them alludes to socioeconomic causes that presumably play a part in generating flesh-and-blood violence. Many point out that if television is a factor in causing violence, it is only one factor. Rowe is right that one needn't use the issue of TV violence as a refuge from gun control. But is it not of some, er, interest that certain prominent would-be censors of TV violence--I mentioned Senator Ernest F. Hollings in particular, co-sponsor of the Children's Protection from Violent Programming Act of 1993--opposed even the most meager gun control provisions of the Brady Bill? Does this not speak to, at the very least, a certain irony?

I have no quarrel with Representative Markey's V-chip. I support it on the ground that parents deserve help controlling their TV sets, just as they need Off-buttons. But I think it absurdly naive to imagine that V-chips are going to make a dent in the 38,000 gunshot deaths that took place last year in America.

I don't know where Rowe gets the notion that I think it's a bad idea for Democrats to talk about "family values." I think it's a fine idea. But again, let's do it seriously, not demagogically. Take the Murphy Brown controversy. Over the past two decades, the proportions of babies born out of wedlock have soared in every industrialized country. They have doubled, tripled, and in the United Kingdom, quadrupled--despite Margaret Thatcher's heroic efforts to shred the social net and restore the stigma to the "undeserving poor." Murphy Brown did not influence marriage rates in London--or in Japan, where illegitimacy has also doubled, though the doubled rate is still minuscule. To talk about family values seriously would be to talk seriously about the 20-year-long decline real wages; about publicly funded child care and parental leave, and, yes, about the nihilism of popular culture, as well.

Rowe wishes to "enable citizens to express their views," and I certainly join him. In "Imagebusters," I advocated the most vig- orous and direct expressions of disgust directed toward media figures who clutter the airwaves with slashes and slime. I'm all for picketing the so-called responsible executives of General Electric, CBS, ABC, Fox, the various producers and syndicators and cable operators at their offices and homes. (What shall we make of their, and their advertisers', family values when they deface the values that circulate through other people's living rooms? The values that matter to them are market values.) I'm for running ads in the papers naming their names. I'll happily join Rowe raising hell at their stockholders' meetings. From what I know of it, I'm not particularly exercised by Senator Dorgan's bill to provide information about the "violence level" of TV shows, though there's no way to compute an objective measure. It's fine to inventory the names of advertisers who subsidize garbage.

But let's go further. Let's charge the TV license-holders, who engorge themselves at the public trough, fees that are hefty enough to finance several serious public television networks. For that matter, let's institute term limits for license-holders. The culture would certainly benefit. And I predict that, still, at the turn of the next millennium, with some 1,500,000 handguns having been manufactured every year (at the current rate) and millions of bullets to fit them, with millions of kids spilling from wrecked families and wrecked neighborhoods into the streets and getting lifelong training in nihilism, we'll still be tearing our hair out over American violence.

Sissela Bok cites Dr. Brandon S. Centerwall's epidemiological research on the link between television exposure and violent crime. I have read Dr. Centerwall's reports and recommend a close reading. (The chief one is "Exposure to Television as a Cause of Violence," in Public Communication and Behavior, ed. George Comstock, Vol. 2, 1989.) He checked homicide rates among white South Africans, Americans, and Canadians during the years following the introduction of television. (In South Africa, this didn't happen until 1975.) Ten to fifteen years after television spread throughout these societies, there was a doubling of the homicide rate among whites. Centerwall was unable to explain this startling shift by changes in age distribution, economic growth, civil unrest, or the availability of firearms, among other factors. Even the rate of murder committed without weapons doubled in the U.S. and Canada between 1965 and 1975. An impressive finding indeed. Still, he doesn't consider the possibility that the Vietnam War unleashed murderous impulses in the United States. (According to his figures, it was about 1967 that the white homicide rate in the United States got back to the level of 1945.)

If one allows for the weakness of all such studies, namely that correlation isn't cause, Centerwall has made an interesting argument. It is not, however, an argument against violent television. It is an argument against television. If television is pernicious_--and I am inclined to believe it is, in spades_--is this because of depictions of violence or other reasons? Just how violent was the television of the 1950s that Centerwall holds responsible for exploding, like a time bomb, in the minds of exposed children years later? Might it be that TV editing is unnerving? That the everyday broadcast of images of wealth and ease on television, especially when broadcast into the homes of children who have neither, incites envy and rage? Or that there's some other effect of television watching as such? Centerwall's research doesn't tell us. It doesn't ask.

In any event, I see no reason to believe that television violence occupies the same causal position with respect to flesh-and-blood violence that smoking does with respect to lung cancer or alcohol does with respect to drunk driving. Moreover--no trivial concern-- it is far harder to pin down just what constitutes violence on television than it is to pin down just what constitutes smoking or drinking. Prohibition is problematic enough; vague prohibitions trifle with the First Amendment in an especially troubling way.

I have no quarrel with a public health approach if it is without illusions and keeps its sense of proportion. In the case of violence, there are plenty of real smoking guns, and I persist in thinking that the current crusade is choosing easy politics and an easy target--Hollywood amorality--over the far tougher project of chipping away at the motives and means of murder.

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