Rhetoric aside, the entertainment industry has been largely indifferent to private and public-sector concern over the societal impact of graphic material in movies, television shows, music, and video games. At times Congress has made noise about becoming directly involved in the matter, leading to industry pledges to deal with the problem, resulting in...nothing.
Those supposed cleanup efforts have been so flaccid as to be doomed from the beginning. For example, in 1997, the television networks adopted age-based and content ratings for their programming in order to inform parents which shows they should keep their kids away from. What happened? The ratings have been applied permissively, haphazardly, and unreliably, rendering them meaningless. Worse, the ratings system has allowed the programs to become trashier than ever.
In the wake of the Littleton massacre, Washington again is thinking hard about legislation. As Broadcasting & Cable magazine stated, "The Senate is more than willing to crack down on media violence if senators feel the media...can't sufficiently police themselves."
All this leaves conservatives in a pickle. We are righteously indignant over Hollywood's complacency and nose-thumbing, yet we believe that this massive, ongoing problem shouldn't be solved by politicians, no matter how thoughtful and sincere, like Joe Lieberman. And certainly not if they're opportunistic and two-faced, like...well, keep reading.
There are several things wrong with the current debate. For the past few weeks, discussions of the media's influence on society have, understandably, centered on violence. But as the Columbine story becomes less personal and more political, this focus grows more worrisome.
On the surface, Bill Clinton is triangulating this issue, positioning himself in the center, with Hollywood and the NRA on the extremes. But since Tinseltown writes the checks for the Democratic Party, nothing will come between Clinton and his moolah.
In his May 15 radio address, Clinton opined, "There is still too much violence [on] our nation's screens, large and small. Too many creators and purveyors of violence say there is nothing they can do about it...Those with greater influence have greater responsibility." Those who produce entertainment fare, he declared, should make it "as if their own children were watching" it.
But later that same day, at a Democratic fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Clinton remarked, "There's no call for finger-pointing here...That doesn't make anybody who makes any movie or any video game or any television program a bad person."
A $3 million Beverly Hills fundraiser will buy you that kind of Slick Willie doubletalk.
The result? Nothing is accomplished, but boy, we feel good about it.
By obsessing over violence, we also ignore other cultural blights. On broadcast television, the medium with the widest reach, sexual references and depictions are far more common than all the punches, kicks, and shootings put together - and though there could never be a spectacular, dramatic sexual equivalent of Littleton, the impact of media-promoted promiscuity is no less real, or less devastating, than the impact of media-glamorized violence.
If we are going to look seriously at media violence, let's move beyond the highly choreographed, almost cartoonish martial arts of "Walker, Texas Ranger" and the high-tech, generally bloodless gunplay of "The Matrix" to the world of video games.
The May 14 New York Times carried a report by Andrew Pollack from the annual Electronic Entertainment Exposition, a video-game trade show. Much of the article was at once eye-opening and stomach-turning. According to Pollack, one company, Interplay Productions, makes both Carmageddon, "in which virtual motorists rack up points by running down pedestrians, [which] a company advertisement said was 'as easy as killing babies with axes,'" and Kingpin, Life of Crime, an ad for which says that "players can 'target specific body parts and see the damage done - including exit wounds.'"
Clearly executives at Interplay and other gore-happy video-game companies badly need a sense of shame. But is the right person to lecture to them about this...William Jefferson Clinton?
Interplay exists only because there's a demand for what it sells, and it has reason to believe that a reduction in carnage might lead to a reduction in profits. Pollack writes that "several years ago [Nintendo] came out with a tame version of Mortal Kombat while Sega continued to sell the original, ultra-gory version." The result, as described by Nintendo executive Howard Lincoln: "We got creamed in the marketplace and got letters from parents saying we were censors."
How do we expect a video-game company, or a television network, or a movie studio to mend its ways if it's virtually certain of getting "creamed in the marketplace"? All the legislation in Washington will do nothing; all the new regulation will create is another forbidden fruit to feed the seemingly insatiable appetite of a popular culture obsessed with death.