Media Savvy, Not Censorship

YOU wouldn't know it from Sen. Bob Dole's drive-by attack on Hollywood, but most people in Hollywood don't like media violence, either.

Last year a poll by US News & World Report found that 87 percent of Hollywood workers said media violence is at least a contributing factor to violence in America. Fifty-eight percent said they avoided violent programs themselves and 76 percent stopped or discouraged their children from watching.

The entertainment industry doesn't freely choose to make violent programs. It isn't primarily a matter of "artistic freedom": It's simply a matter of money, the global free market that both Republicans and Democrats love to praise. Violent television programs actually don't do well in the domestic ratings. But their cartoon-like simplicity and lack of complex dialogue makes them much easier to re-sell around the world. A study of prime-time programs from 1988 to 1993 found that violent programs in the United States averaged a 19.7 percent share, while nonviolent programming averaged 27.7 percent.

Another study, covering 365 programs, found that crime-action series made up one-sixth of programs shown only in the US, but nearly half of those are exported. Because they're being bought for re-broadcast, they're far cheaper than original programming. Thus, both here and abroad, violence holds less appeal for audiences but more appeal for the bottom line.

This problem of "market efficiencies" is hardly limited to violence in the media. Child labor, unsafe working conditions, and lack of pollution controls all reduce product costs and increase competitiveness, but damage the community. At least since President Teddy Roosevelt started trust-busting, America has sought means of democratic regulation to preserve the market while limiting its tendency to damage the public good. Our system of rating movies and placing warning labels on compact discs are examples of this approach, in contrast to the repressive, dictatorial tradition of censorship.

A more-comprehensive version of this approach is advocated by George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia. Mr. Gerbner is the founder of the Cultural Environment Movement, a broad coalition expressing the social concerns of many groups, inside Hollywood as well as out. "For the first time in human history," Gerbner points out, "most of the stories about people, life, and values are told not by parents, schools, churches, or others in the community who have something to tell, but by a group of distant conglomerates that have something to sell. ... The roles children grow into are no longer homemade, hand-crafted, community inspired. They are products of a complex, integrated, and globalized manufacturing and marketing system."

Media violence is just one symptom of the underlying problem. If we want to solve it, we must return the media to community control. This means teaching media literacy and activism and developing the critical capacities of citizens and their ability to talk back to the media. It means allowing the media to diversify, just as literature has diversified with writers like Tony Morrison and Maya Angelou. It means diversifying the stories being told, the roles available, and the people involved - on the air and off.

And it means diversifying, not destroying, the outlets available - including cable access and noncommercial broadcasting. After all, if it's nonviolent children's programming you want, the last thing you should do is destroy public television.

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