At a recent dinner at a friend's house, there was much groaning about Congress's failure to pass a serious gun-control measure. New York liberals all, we bemoaned the gun lobby's ability to triumph once again, even in the wake of the bloodletting in Littleton.
And wasn't it depressing, I added, that, once again, the issue of the media's role as purveyors of violence was probably not going to be addressed in any meaningful way?
There was a moment of awkward silence. "You don't really think that violence in the media has anything to do with Littleton, do you?" said a woman sitting across from me.
"I don't see how beating up on Hollywood is going to have any effect on the level of violence in this country," declared a woman to my left.
"People keep talking about violence in the media," a third put in. "Yet the juvenile crime rate is going down."
Hoping for allies, I noted that hundreds of studies have been conducted on the subject of media violence over the past 30 years, and almost without exception they have found a clear link to aggressive behavior, especially among young people. The evidence is so strong, I said, that among most researchers there was no longer any debate.
It was to no avail. Most of those around the table would not be budged from their position that media violence is a fake issue pursued by Republicans for political gain.
I was not surprised. For years, I've been fighting this same battle. My friends' comments have become fairly standard:
"We all grew up watching 'The Three Stooges,' yet we turned out okay." Or, "If parents dislike what's on TV, they should turn off their sets." Or, "Hollywood is simply providing what people want. The market rules."
I understand such sentiments. Once, I even shared them. Years ago, when Tipper Gore proposed putting warning labels on music album covers, I snickered along with a lot of other people. My views began to change, however, when I began researching the drug trade in East Harlem for a book I was writing. In the process, I heard gruesome stories about addicts stabbing one another over grains of heroin, about crackheads throwing children from building rooftops, about teenagers tortured and executed for coming up a few dollars short in a drug deal.
In the midst of this, I saw "Pulp Fiction." The movie was clever, but given what I was learning about real-life violence, I found it hard to laugh at Quentin Tarantino's breezy "do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in Paris" approach to murder and brutality. I was even more put off by the rousing reception the movie got from (mostly liberal) film critics. The film's graphic content, they knowingly insisted, was meant to be taken ironically, as a witty commentary on violence in America. To me, though, the movie--by suggesting that we could be entertained by such acts--seemed to raise our tolerance for them.
Then came "L.A. Confidential." Yes, the movie had an intriguing plot and interesting characters. But in terms of body count, it outdid even "Pulp Fiction." Every important conflict in the film was resolved with weapons or fists, culminating in the preposterously bloody final shootout. Nonetheless, my liberal friends raved and the critics swooned. "True," Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker, the movie "glistens with wrongdoing of every stripe--a gashed throat in a motel, a herd of cops on a Christmas rampage, a multiple slaying at the Nite Owl Cafe. There are hookers and hopheads, and some juicy political blackmail. Yet the film itself is oddly delicate, and much of the blood is spilled long before we step in it." Oddly delicate? Gashed throats and multiple slayings?
It could be argued, of course, that "Pulp Fiction" and "L.A. Confidential" were aimed at adult viewers. Yet the movies directed at younger audiences--"The Matrix," the "Lethal Weapon" series, the endless Schwarzenegger, Seagal and Stallone flicks--seem even more explicitly violent. Movie violence has become so endemic that it infects even "family" comedies such as "Home Alone," in which the hapless Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are repeatedly thwacked and thwunked. What's worse, these movies are routinely shown on television, alongside Jerry Springer, pro wrestling, "Cops," "911," and all the other variations on the theme. Even the Lifetime cable channel, which aims itself at women, frequently airs movies featuring slashings, stabbings and shootings--only there it's usually the women who commit the violence (in self-defense, of course).
Can exposure to such programming influence young people to behave violently? The families of the three victims in the 1997 school shooting in West Paducah, Ky., think so. They have alleged in a lawsuit that the perpetrator was inspired by "The Basketball Diaries,"with its fantasy sequence featuring Leonardo DiCaprio barging into a classroom and riddling his teacher and classmates with bullets. The suit is seeking damages from the film's makers and distributors, including Time Warner and Polygram Film Entertainment Distribution, as well as from the makers of "Mortal Kombat" and other violent video games that the young gunman allegedly played.
Needless to say, other factors were involved in the recent spate of school shootings. And of course, few of the millions of teenagers exposed to violent movies and video games go out and shoot people. Nonetheless, should we be closing our eyes to the links that studies have found between media violence and aggressive behavior? In both 1972 and 1982, the U.S. Surgeon General's office conducted comprehensive overviews of the existing research; both times, it found televised violence contributed to antisocial behavior. Between 1990 and 1996, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unanimously concluded that TV violence contributed to violence in the real world.
Doing something about this would seem a natural cause for liberals, especially those of baby-boom vintage. As parents, baby boomers are known for their obsessive efforts to protect their children--childproofing their homes, finding good books to read to them, hunting for the best schools. Though not a parent myself, I can think of few things more threatening to the psychological well-being of kids than the muck served up by Hollywood. Yet, when it comes to insulating their kids from it, many boomers can't be bothered.
Frank Rich, a New York Times columnist and baby-boom oracle, has frequently mocked politicians who express concern over violence in the media. In a June 19 column, Rich inveighed against politicians who give "hypocritical sermons about pop culture." Among his chief targets: Republican William Bennett, the former secretary of education who has made a name for himself through his books about values and moral decline. "The bodies had hardly been buried in Littleton," Rich wrote, "when Mr. Virtue took to the pulpit of 'Meet the Press' to target 'the Levins, the Bronfmans, the people who run Viacom' for spewing cultural rot." In testimony before Congress, Rich said, Bennett singled out "the Edgar Bronfmans, Howard Stringers, Michael Eisners and Oliver Stones." Missing from the list, Rich gleefully pointed out, was "Republican fat cat" Rupert Murdoch, whose Twentieth Century Fox movie studio is bringing out the violent "Fight Club" this fall.
Because Rich is so intent on deriding the Republican Bennett, he can't seem to see that the purveyors of violence transcend ideological categories--that they come from both political parties and include fat cats on the left and the right. Rich's narrow-minded analysis helps explain why liberals are so reluctant to take on media violence. The issue has traditionally been pushed by conservatives, and their pronouncements often seem part of a broader moral crusade. Certainly some conservatives are so motivated. But just because Bill Bennett has embraced an issue seems an insufficient reason to dismiss it. In fact, reining in media violence would seem to dovetail with many liberal causes, such as stricter gun control, more affordable child care, and expanded after-school programs.
Another, more serious concern is the specter of government involvement. In his column, Rich excoriated Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) for introducing a bill to prohibit the sale of "obscenely" sexual and violent material to minors under the age of 17. This objection is well-founded; no supporter of the First Amendment can rest easy at the thought of Congress regulating the content of movies or TV programs.
So what is to be done? The government does have a role to play in combating media violence--but not by passing laws. Without tampering with the First Amendment, political officials need to speak out loudly and repeatedly about the irresponsible practices of movie and TV executives.
Of course, some politicians have done this. In the wake of Littleton, for instance, President Clinton has criticized the excesses of the movie industry. Unfortunately, his close ties to Hollywood have kept his message muted, as can be seen from his lame proposal to conduct an 18-month study to determine whether entertainment companies deliberately market violence to kids. A quick glance at a calendar shows that an 18-month deadline means the study won't be ready until the 2000 election is over, which means the Clinton administration won't have to act on it. Hollywood--and Al Gore's fund-raisers--breathed a collective sigh of relief.
President Clinton's other contribution to the debate--the V-chip--seems no more promising. The technology, which must be incorporated into all TV sets larger than 13 inches after Jan. 1, 2000, is designed to block out violent and sexually explicit TV shows. In championing the law back in 1996, Clinton said it puts the remote back into the hands of parents. But in placing the burden on Mom and Dad, the V-chip takes it off the place it most belongs: Hollywood.
What we need is a concerted and sustained campaign designed to shame the Levins, Bronfmans and, yes, the Murdochs into behaving like responsible citizens. Could such an approach work? It has with the tobacco industry. Not long ago, the cigarette companies seemed invincible. But then the American people elected a president who was willing to take them on, especially on the issue of marketing to kids, and eventually the industry was forced to reform. The same could happen with the entertainment world. If enough voices are raised, Sony and Viacom and Fox would find it in their corporate interest to eliminate--voluntarily--objectionable and gratuitous scenes from their products.
Bringing this about, however, will take strong leadership from the White House. It also will take vocal participation by liberals. Otherwise, Hollywood can easily reject a jawboning campaign as driven by partisanship. And who better to get to the liberals who dominate Hollywood than their fellow liberals? Imagine if at next year's Academy Awards, activists such as Alec Baldwin began talking not about Tibet but about the mindless violence being served up on the big screen. If that happened, things might change very quickly. It might even make for a good movie with a classic Hollywood theme, in which a few brave souls battle, and defeat, an all-powerful adversary. Sylvester Stallone could even play the lead.
Michael Massing is the author of "The Fix" (Simon & Schuster), a study of U.S. drug policy since the 1960s.