Critics Gain Momentum To Terminate Violence

Congress considers action after deaths are linked to a college football movie and a cartoon about out-of-control teenagers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Michael Shingledecker lay down on a two-lane highway last Saturday night, the Pennsylvania teenager was imitating a scene from the film ``The Program'' in which beefy but witless football players lie in street traffic to prove their bravery.

He ended up losing his life - and becoming another tragic case study in the enduring debate over media portrayals of violence.

Coming in the wake of a boy who allegedly burned down his house after watching the MTV cartoon ``Beavis and Butt-head,'' the incident has provided fodder for critics who charge that the TV and movie industries encourage violent behavior in the real world.

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This week, a United States Senate committee took up the challenge with a ``showdown'' hearing on TV violence. All TV networks and the Motion Picture Association of America cite First Amendment grounds to oppose any legislation to regulate the content of either TV or movie programs.

But staff members say the hearing - at which Attorney General Janet Reno strongly condemned media violence - could represent a step closer to new content regulations or at least limiting violence on TV to hours children are less likely to watch. Preemptive action

Producers are already taking preemptive steps to forestall legislative action. The Walt Disney Company, which produced ``The Program,'' this week deleted the scene that inspired Mr. Shingledecker and a daredevil on Long Island, N.Y., who also died.

MTV, the rock-music channel, decided to move its popular ``Beavis and Butt-head'' cartoon, which depicts the adventures of two rollicking and generally lawless teenagers, to a later time slot. The producers also pledged not to depict arson anymore - a move that comes two weeks after a five-year-old boy in Ohio set a fire that killed his two-year-old-sister, apparently in emulation of the cartoon characters.

``The whole Disney episode is a wake-up call for those people who say what we see in the media doesn't influence anybody,'' says film reviewer Michael Medved, a critic of media violence.

``Disney's prompt response on this is really exemplary,'' he adds. ``It's not fair to blame [``The Program's''] writer-director David Ward. There are a dozen scenes in films that I've seen this year that I have worried about much more. The irony is that the Disney movie is a flop. Imagine how much more influence a hit movie has.''

``Television and movies need to help us protect our children,'' says Maire Messenger Davies, associate professor of broadcasting at Boston University. ``TV is a teacher, like families and schools. But TV and movies never show the outcome or consequences of violence, how awful it is to lose someone in a shooting. Nobody on TV mourns them. If it is your child lying in the road, what are his parents going to feel like?''

Other critics of violence in the media contend that the Disney action following the incident is like a band-aid applied to a severe problem.

``The issue is really the vision of the world that children are building from what they are seeing on TV and movies,'' says Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston who studies the impact of violent themes in media. `A terrible burden'

``Macho football players are the heroes children are seeing now, and believing they should be like them,'' Ms. Levin says.

``It's a terrible burden for a six- or seven-year-old boy to think this is what he should be like. I heard of a child this week who didn't want to go to kindergarten. He didn't want to go because he thought `Kindergarten Cop' and `Terminator 2' would be there.''

But at the Senate hearing, Attorney General Reno said she opposes legislation against TV violence, but that it may be necessary if the entertainment industry does not voluntarily reduce violence in programming.

Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois says, ``This fall we have less violence in TV then we've had in 25 years.'' As a result, the senator suggests that any legislative action should be delayed until January so that the networks have time to create a self-regulating body to monitor TV violence.

In 1990, Congress gave the networks a three-year antitrust waiver to allow them to meet and agree on voluntary steps to reduce violence in programming. In June, the networks agreed to use parental advisories on shows they considered too violent for kids.

``Parents are told they should take responsibility,'' says Wheelock College's Levin. ``But so many parents are doing too many other things to survive, and even responsible parents can't do it.... There is a tradition of government protecting children, and it is always expected.''

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