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Abandoned in The Wasteland
By Newton Minow and Craig L. LaMay

Chapter One: Strangers in the House

Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up? -- Plato

EVERY day, millions of Americans leave their children in the care of total strangers. Many do so reluctantly. Child care is hard to come by and they take what they can get. Fortunately, many of the strangers are good company. They know something about the needs of children, and are caring, even loving, in trying to meet them. But because the financial rewards for child care are few, these people rarely stay. Those who do stay usually neglect the children altogether. When they do pay attention, they hustle the children for money, bribing them with toys and candy. They bring guns to the house, and drugs, and they invite their friends over; sometimes they use the house for sexual liaisons. Often things get out of hand. Fights break out, and frequently someone gets hurt or killed.

Many parents eventually catch on. Some are horrified; some don't care. Amazingly, however, most accept the situation, believing it beyond their power to change. They may be right. Better care is expensive and hard to find, and the strangers, once there, refuse to leave. Like drug dealers on the corner, they control the life of the neighborhood, the home, and, increasingly, the lives of the children in their custody. Unlike drug dealers, they cannot be chased away or deterred: they claim a constitutional right to stay.

This is not a horror story from the tabloids. Nor, upon meeting the parents of these children, would most of us think them criminal, unfit, or even irresponsible. The fact is, if you own a television set, there is a good chance that this is your family, and these are your children. Every day, all across the United States, a parade of louts, losers, and con men whom most people would never allow in their homes enter anyway, through television. And every day the strangers spend more time with America's children than teachers do, or even in many cases the parents themselves. "If you came home and you found a strange man ... teaching your kids to punch each other, or trying to sell them all kinds of products, you'd kick him right out of the house," says Yale psychology professor Jerome Singer. "But here you are; you come in and the TV is on, and you don't think twice about it."

We should. Those strangers are raising and educating our children. They occupy a special place in our children's lives, as important for what they teach them as the family, the school, or the church is. By the time most American children begin first grade, they will have already spent the equivalent of three school years in the tutelage of the family television set. Between the ages of six and eighteen they will spend more time each week in front of that set than they will engaged in any other activity, whether schoolwork, playing, or talking with friends and family. For millions of them, television is not only the first but also the most enduring educational and social institution they will know. For those in unstable or abusive families, a television set may be the nearest thing to a parent they can hope for, providing whatever intellectual nourishment they are likely to get during the critical developmental period between birth and their sixth birthday. For millions of other children in loving families, whose lives are more stable, television still occupies more of their waking time than their parents do. Nearly 70 percent of the day-care facilities at which their parents leave them have a television on for several hours each day.

In the 1930s and 1940s, television's creators expressed their hope that the new medium would be the greatest instrument of enlightenment ever invented, a blessing to future generations. They were wrong. Broadcasters and politicians have turned it instead into an instrument of child exploitation and abuse. In the American system, children are not primarily to be educated, nurtured, or even entertained; like everyone else, they are simply chattel to be rounded up and sold to advertisers. The Fox Children's Network, for example, boasts to advertisers that "we deliver more young viewers than anyone." That is how American television works: the sponsors and advertisers are its real public; the viewers are the "product" it can "deliver"; and programs are merely the bait, the means to obtain the product. To lure children, television's main bait is cheaply produced and frequently aired cartoons, many of which look like advertisements and are: the success of these programs is determined not by who watches and likes them but by the revenues generated through the sale of merchandise related to them, from toys to breakfast cereals. As a European broadcasting executive once observed to an American audience, "Your system trains children to be consumers; ours trains children to be citizens."

No other major democratic nation in the world has so willingly turned its children over to mercenary strangers this way. No other democratic nation has so willingly converted its children into markets for commercial gain and ignored their moral, intellectual, and social development. Psychologists and social scientists know both that this system does measurable harm and that, used wisely, television can do measurable good; teachers and parents know the same things from experience. But broadcasters know that the existing system makes money for them, and because it does they, assert that it serves the public interest.

This belief -- that the public interest can best be expressed in the language of dollars and cents -- has been a part of American broadcast history since the 1920s and the earliest days of radio, as we shall see. But until very recently, that belief was balanced against another: that the public interest requires broadcasters actually to do good, to consider the needs of their listeners before their own. This is especially true where children are concerned, because while adults can take full responsibility for themselves, children typically cannot. They do not have the skills, resources, or knowledge to make the normal market mechanism related to consumer choice meaningful, which means that others -- parents, educators, physicians, judges, librarians, and so on -- must play a role in making meaningful choices for them. Broadcasters, whose exclusive use of the public airwaves gives them unique access to children in their homes, until recently shared some of this moral and social obligation. It was only in the late 1970s that Congress and the Federal Communications Commission began to openly question this public-interest rationale and suggest that it infringed unreasonably on the First Amendment rights of the broadcast media. And it was only in the early 1980s that the FCC effectively jettisoned its public-interest mandate altogether, declaring that thereafter the marketplace, with its preference for economic efficiency, would determine the public interest.

Significantly, the FCC's decision was based less on economics than on the First Amendment. Too many of the public-interest regulations borne by broadcasters, the agency argued, unduly restricted their right to determine the content of their broadcasts; as a judge of the public interest, the market was more precise, less arbitrary, and far less intrusive. The market itself was imperfect, the commission acknowledged, but its failings were best remedied through market adjustments, not through government regulation of private broadcasters.

The effect of this argument, and of the FCC's decision, was to unleash competitive tensions in the television industry that had been held in check since the earliest days of broadcast radio in the 1920s. The new economic environment transformed all areas of television programming, none more so than news and children's programs, both of which had traditionally produced slim or even no profits and had depended instead on the broadcasters' own sense of public obligation and on regulatory attention. Children's programming, a focus of reform at the FCC throughout the 1970s, was dropped from the agency's list of concerns almost overnight. It was quickly overrun by toy and food companies eager to create programs that featured their products. News, educational programs, and other types of TV broadcasting for children virtually disappeared, replaced by programs that commanded higher advertising rates. Many, such as GI Joe, were intended to sell toys, while others were intended primarily for adult audiences. Violence in children's programs increased considerably; so, too, did the number and frequency of commercials.

A second effect of the FCC's marketplace theory was to turn the effort to reform children's television into a debate not about children and their needs but about the rights of broadcasters to make money. Whether this was intended or not, the meaning of free speech came to be measured exclusively in dollars. So exploitative did children's programming practices become as a result that in 1990 Congress passed the Children's Television Act, restoring time limits on commercials in children's programs and requiring broadcasters to air at least some "educational and informational" fare suitable for children. The act became law without the signature of President George Bush, who said it violated the First Amendment and that the market should determine what children see on television. Making the same argument, President Ronald Reagan had vetoed similar legislation in 1988. Broadcasters had objected to the Children's Television Act since it was first proposed in 1983. Testifying before Congress that year, National Association of Broadcasters senior vice president for research John Abel said, "The nation's broadcasters do not need the government to be their programming partner. The Commission's proposal is very intrusive in a sensitive First Amendment area." By the time the law was finally enacted in 1990, the NAB had succeeded in greatly weakening it, so much so that broadcasters paid it little mind.

Then, in November 1992, the Center for Media Education in Washington, D.C., an organization that monitors children's programming practices, reported that dozens of broadcasters around the country had listed in their FCC filings thirty-year-old reruns of cheerful commercial programs like Yogi Bear and The Jetsons, or afternoon talk shows, as the "educational and informational" component of their children's programming. The center's study, which quoted some of the artful descriptions that broadcasters had used to justify these listings, led the commission to announce that it would begin scrutinizing broadcasters' compliance with the law more closely. Many broadcasters, led by Broadcasting and Cable, complained that all this violated the First Amendment. Later, when the Center for Media Education urged Congress to require one hour of educational programming a day in time periods when children are watching, the Media Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., complained, "The Children's Television Act represents an attempt by government to coerce video publishers to offer up a certain class of government approved programming ... Endorsing certain programs and discrediting others are clear examples of forbidden government conduct."

At about the same time, Congress began to give new attention to the question of whether television did children actual harm. In the winter of 1993, Illinois senator Paul Simon and Massachusetts representative Edward Markey opened hearings on the subject of television violence and its effects on children. Senator Simon led the initiative; in 1990 he had persuaded Congress to offer the major broadcast networks a three-year reprieve from the antitrust laws so that they could together discuss television violence, but he was disappointed, since the networks had failed to so much as acknowledge the issue in the first two years of his reprieve. The hearings drew enormous press attention, bringing together top executives from the broadcasting and entertainment industries in New York and Hollywood, leading social scientists, pediatricians, parents, and many others. But the hearings seemed to have virtually no effect on the networks' nightly schedules, particularly during the so-called sweeps periods, when broadcasters seek the highest audiences possible as a benchmark for establishing advertising rates. In the midst of the hearings, for example, ABC aired a two-evening special movie called Murder in the Heartland, about Nebraska mass murderer Charles Starkweather -- a montage of shotgun blasts and bloodied victims that was followed in many television markets with local news items about the killer, his crimes, and his 1959 execution.

In June 1993 the three major broadcast networks announced that they would begin labeling programs for their violent content, which would give a warning to parents that certain shows were not children's fare. By August, when a nationally televised "summit meeting" convened in Hollywood to discuss television violence, the Fox Television Network, the Turner Broadcasting System, and several independent broadcasters had said that they, too, would begin labeling violent programs. Several cable programmers, many of whom, like Home Box Office and Showtime, had always preceded the showing of feature films and special programs with some type of content rating, also clarified their policies with respect to parental advisories.

These labeling plans were greeted with skepticism by children's advocates, who argued that labels alone might make matters worse. Labels would work, they argued, only if augmented by some sort of computer chip built into the television set that would allow parents actually to screen out the shows they found offensive. This suggestion for what were soon known as "v-chips" was derided by entertainment executives, many of whom argued that the labeling system itself had been "coerced" and that, used in conjunction with a screening chip, it would be unconstitutional. CBS president Howard Stringer said, "A chip for violence might be followed with a chip ... for political correctness, soon, chips with everything. Without care, the chip could be the curse of the First Amendment."

Sensing the depth of public frustration, Congress refused to drop the issue and by late 1993 was considering several bills, any one of which, Attorney General Janet Reno told a congressional committee, would meet constitutional muster. Almost immediately every major newspaper in the United States published an editorial rebuking the Attorney General, agreeing implicitly, if not explicitly, with the television industry's defense that any congressional action to curb television violence -- even keeping records and reporting publicly on the issue -- was censorship. Most opined, as the Chicago Tribune did, that Reno had prescribed "a dangerous cure for TV violence." The New York Times warned against "Janet Reno's heavy hand," while in USA Today former NBC News president Michael Gartner charged that Reno was "playing with fire." Entertainment Weekly, under the headline "Reno and Butt-Head," juxtaposed the Attorney General with a moronic adolescent cartoon character, and quoted a television producer complaining that

the violence debate is old, and the real debate was debated when they wrote the Constitution, goddamit! They want to tell us what we can see. To violate the perfect music of the Constitution to put a f-ing Band-Aid on a problem and divert our attention is a f-ing sin. If Thomas Jefferson were alive, he would walk into Senator Simon's office and kick his ass.
Anyone familiar with Jefferson's musings about the press might come to a different conclusion about where, if consulted on the matter, he might plant his foot. Similarly, anyone familiar with what Jefferson considered his greatest legacy -- the founding of the University of Virginia -- might think differently about the First Amendment implications of asking broadcasters to air an hour each day of educational programming for children.

But in this day and age, it seems, we can think none of these things. Unwittingly, perhaps, too many Americans acquiesce in the view of the commercial interests who control television and who take the First Amendment to mean that our children are stuck with the strangers whose only desire is to exploit them, and that their parents, teachers, and public officials are forbidden from trying to protect them or even from offering them something better. In 1992, for example, when a Texas dentist, Richard Neill, organized a campaign to draw attention to the fact that Donahue and other television talk shows aired in afternoon time slots when many children were watching, he was ridiculed for his effort. According to Neill, about 5 percent of Donahue's audience were children, 400,000 nationwide, and he targeted Phil Donahue because, he said, he was one of the best talk shows, and Donahue was in a position to set an example for the rest. Most talk shows, the dentist accurately noted, were out-and-out freak shows, and he wanted to know why they couldn't air at night, when far fewer children would be likely to see them. In response, Phil Donahue called Neill -- who had acknowledged being a religious man -- a censor and a zealot. Later, when pressed by CBS News reporter Dan Rather, Donahue asked rhetorically, "What kind of country do we want?"

That is the question, all right. The answer, apparently, is a country in which a television set is a device whose only purpose is to sell things, and where anything that impedes that goal -- even self-regulation -- is said to violate the First Amendment. When Senator Simon urged the television industry to regulate itself by creating an "advisory office on television violence" to report to the public, Geoffrey Cowan, a producer and board member of the National Council for Families and Television, reportedly objected that the proposal was tantamount to censorship.

It used to be that broadcasters told parents to turn their sets off if they didn't like the programs; now even that recourse is suspect, with commerce pushing us to accept the link between money and free speech. In November 1992, when a group of women organized a national Turn Off the TV Day, Peter Chrisanthopoulos, president of the Network Television Association (which represents ABC, CBS, and NBC), said: "Viewers should express their opinions and act accordingly, but participating in national boycotts is an infringement on the network's First Amendment rights." It is richly ironic that the networks, having long insisted that a parent's only constitutional recourse was to turn off the set, now view even that act as unconstitutional. Several months later, Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti objected to the installation of v-chips in television sets: "I'm opposed to a single button that can block out a whole program day or a single program week. That is not parental responsibility." Isn't it? So long as a parent controls the on-off switch, does it really matter where it is? If the v-chip is unconstitutional, so is a remote-control device -- and so, too, are parents who control what their children watch.

If we truly believe that the entertainment industry should have unrestricted access to our children, that neither government nor parents themselves have a duty or the right to intercede on their behalf, then we have converted the First Amendment from a sword of freedom into a shackle of bondage. We have used it to abandon our children in a wasteland and to trap them there, without any opportunity to escape; we have used it to make economic opportunities out of human beings. To paraphrase Phil Donahue, is this the kind of country we want?

When the Federal Communications Commission launched into fullforce deregulation in the 1980s, even some proponents of the move wondered if its enthusiasm for market forces wasn't a bit overblown. An August 1985 cover of Business Week, for example, asked, "Has the FCC Gone Too Far?" Certainly many people thought so when, in 1983, Chairman Mark Fowler dismissed criticism of its policies by declaring that a television set was nothing more than a "toaster with pictures."

The analogy struck virtually everyone with any knowledge about television's role in American society and throughout the world as ill-considered and uncaring. But Fowler had inadvertently put his finger on American television's greatest failing: no thinking adult would leave a small child unattended to play with a plugged-in toaster for hours on end -- to do so would be reckless and irresponsible, if not criminal. Yet because we have neglected to take seriously the implications of the Communications Act's "public interest" requirement, leaving an unattended child in the company of a television set is just as dangerous.

Television is the most violent part of a nation that is itself the most violent country in the developed world. Every year in the United States there are more than 1.9 million violent crimes and more than 20,000 homicides. Someone is murdered in the United States every twenty-two minutes. These are the numbers that television executives like to quote when they say that the violence on the screen mirrors the violence in real life. But it doesn't. The simple arithmetic is this: in a country of more than 250 million people, an American's chance of being a victim of violent crime is statistically very small; by comparison, a random walk through primetime television reveals a world in which almost half the characters are either victims or perpetrators of violent crimes (the percentage comes from research by George Gerbner at the University of Pennsylvania); in children's programs, the percentage rises to 79 percent. Critics complain that these percentages are grossly inflated by narrow definitions of violence that include everything from pie-in-the-face jokes to news programming. But even a generous allowance for such narrowness still leaves the world of television an exaggeratedly brutal place. In one eighteen-hour period in April 1992, for example, the Center for Media and Public Affairs monitored ten broadcast and cable channels in Washington, D.C., and counted 1,846 violent scenes, 175 of which resulted in a fatality. If only half of the latter group -- 87 or 88 scenes -- were homicides, that would give television a murder rate of one every twelve minutes, almost twice the rate of real murder. Most important of all is that this statistical comparison greatly understates the point: television homicides, unlike those on the street, are witnessed by hundreds of millions of people, among them, every weekday night, about 13 million children. Even in a nation where a gun can be found in every other home, television's portrayal of violence is so skewed as to have made a norm out of the extreme, the sensational, and the improbable. Through television, Americans have created a cosmology of terror that overshadows reality itself.

So routinely do Americans accept television's version of their lives that on January 18, 1993, when seventeen-year-old Gary Scott Pennington walked into his high-school English class in Grayson, Kentucky, and fired a .38-caliber bullet into his teacher's forehead, killing her, one of the students who witnessed the murder remembered thinking, "This isn't supposed to happen. This must be MTV." Must be. The average student in Gary's senior class had already seen 18,000 murders on television. The average student in the class had spent between 15,000 and 20,000 hours watching television, compared with 11,000 in school; every year the average American child watches more than a thousand stylized and explicit rapes, murders, armed robberies, and assaults on television.

Small wonder that countless studies and reviews over the past decades have argued that there is a link between aggressive behavior and exposure to television violence. Small wonder that the Surgeon General in 1972, the National Institute of Mental Health in 1982, and the American Psychological Association in 1992 have all said such a link exists. Broadcasters like to say that these studies don't prove anything, and in one respect they're right. Social science is not tn the proof business, but in the business of identifying relationships and measuring their significance, strength, and direction. Where television violence is concerned, social science relies on several methods of testing the relationships, ranging from simple laboratory experiments to thirty-year studies of people's lives that take into account all the factors -- family income, education, family cohesion -- that contribute to social violence. Virtually all this research has been done in the studies of television, and all of them consistently show that television violence contributes to real violence, and to a pervasive sense of fear.

The most famous of these studies is the 1972 Surgeon General's report Television and Growing Up: The Impact of Televised Violence. The report had its roots in earlier congressional inquiries into social violence, in 1961 and again in 1964, and in the Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson to examine the root causes of unrest in a nation that had borne witness to three major political assassinations and disastrous urban riots. As part of its work, the commission established a task force to study media violence. The task force drew the attention of Rhode Island senator John Pastore, then chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, who wanted a definitive answer to the question of whether violence on television affected behavior. In 1969 Pastore directed the Surgeon General to look into the matter and to report the following year.

© 1995 Minow, LaMay

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