Washington Turns Up The Debate on TV Violence
SINCE Jan Cummings banned her five-year-old son, Joseph, from watching ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,'' he no longer lunges around their Baltimore home karate-chopping and fan-kicking into thin air. ''I see a major difference in his behavior. He's much less aggressive,'' she says.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Ms. Cummings's concerns on TV violence are widely shared, and in recent weeks the issue has again risen to the top of the national consciousness. This week, President Clinton endorsed a proposal to allow parents to electronically block violent programs, and Congress held hearings on a bill that would restrict broadcasters from airing violent shows when a substantial number of children are likely to be watching.
This is not the first time Congress has threatened to get involved with the entertainment industry. Since the 1950s, the apparent impact on children of rising levels of television violence has periodically spawned congressional calls for regulation, more responsible programming, and academic studies. Those, in turn, elicited fervent cries of censorship, defenses of First Amendment freedoms, and pledges of good behavior from the entertainment industry. The result has been a stalemate of sorts, and more violence on TV.
''There's been a circle of blame,'' says Elizabeth Thoman, executive director of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, who notes that the preponderance of research has linked viewing TV violence to increases in aggression.
This most recent public outcry about media violence was prompted by voters increasingly concerned about real-life bloodshed in their own neighborhoods, and by the savvy campaign staff of Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas.
Last month, Senator Dole castigated Hollywood for producing ''nightmares of depravity'' and putting ''profits before common decency.'' Soon, other politicians were lining up to decry what they called the destructive influences of Hollywood's increasingly gruesome dream machine.
''I don't care if the politics may appear hypocritical or expedient,'' says Dr. Bob Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. ''To get rid of the sludge of popular culture, the people who produce it must be treated like polluters and pornographers. They have to be made to feel ashamed of what they do.''
An array of proposals designed to curb TV violence are under discussion in Washington and Hollywood, ranging from FCC regulation, to technological quick fixes, to voluntary restraints and rating systems.
This week, at a conference on family policy in Tennessee, President Clinton endorsed the so-called V-chip. The inexpensive microchip could be installed in TV sets and allow parents to block out any programs rated as violent. ''This is not censorship, this is parental responsibility,'' Clinton said.
An amendment to the telecommunications bill that recently passed the Senate requires the development of the V-chip, along with the establishment of a voluntary TV-rating system that could be invisibly transmitted with each program. If private industry failed to develop the systems within a year, the amendment stipulates that the government would mandate both the chip and the rating system.
''The V-chip is the opposite of the infringement on the right to speak,'' says Sissela Bok, a noted social critic who is writing a book on violence in the media. ''It gives parents control over what comes into the home; it doesn't affect the programming that's available.''
The idea of some sort of electronic blocking device to allow parents to control what comes into their homes has been around for more than a decade. Such a system was even patented in 1981, but at the time, the inventor couldn't raise any capital to produce it. No one seemed to think it would sell.