Constitution as cash machine
There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately over a survey that found more Americans know the names of the Simpson family than the five freedoms identified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Nothing gets the blood of middle-aged media types circulating like American civic illiteracy. Suddenly we're in Rome again, entertaining ourselves to death.
This is true, of course. But what these media types overlook is the part they've played in the accelerating degradation of our constitutional safeguards. If people have tuned out what's in the Constitution, maybe it's because they've come to associate it with the commercial clutter spawned in its name.
Take children's television - if you can stand it. The Parents Television Council, a watchdog group headed by media pit bull Brent Bozell, recently did an analysis of entertainment programming for children aged 5-10 on broadcast television and expanded basic cable. They looked at 443.5 hours of children's programming during the summer of 2005 on ABC, Fox, NBC, WB, ABC Family, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
Here is what they found: In the 443.5 hours of children's programming, there were 3,488 instances of violence, or an average of 7.86 violent incidents per hour. As the report states, "Even when the innocent 'cartoony' violence most of us grew up with (e.g. an anvil falling on Wile E. Coyote's head) is extracted, there were still 2,794 instances of violence for an average of 6.30 violent incidents per hour."
To put this in perspective, in a 2002 study, the six broadcast networks combined averaged 4.71 instances of violence per hour of primetime programming. So there's more violence being delivered through kids' programming today than was being used in adult programming less than four years ago.
That's not all. The researchers also counted hundreds of instances of adult language, sexual innuendo, bullying, trash talking and other forms of mean-spirited verbal abuse that commonly passes for "attitude."
It's at this point that media executives and cable TV tycoons typically start huffing and puffing about their favorite of the five freedoms, the Freedom of Speech. It's their right, they say, to make whatever programs they want. To claim otherwise is to trample on free expression. Nobody, they continue, makes a kid watch this show or that; it's a parents' job to monitor viewing habits in the home. Finally, no one has ever scientifically proven that there is a cause-and-effect correlation between what people watch on TV and real life behavior.
Let's set aside the dubious notion that the focus-grouped, market-researched and heavily-branded guided missiles also known as children's television programming are anything but a funhouse mirror image of what is meant by the words "free expression." Let's also acknowledge that, when it comes to television, the only parental control that really matters is the almost unheard of decision not to own one of the damn things. Television is not a window on the world. It's a portal that gives the snarky world of commerce entrée to your house and every head that lives there.
And as for the supposedly unproven effects of programming on behavior, well, tell that to the world's advertising agencies. If advertising affects behavior, so do the portrayals of behavior on the shows the advertising makes possible.
Kevin Martin, the head of the Federal Communications Commission, isn't waiting for "the experts" to come out and tell us what we already know about the damaging effects of exploitative media. He's been floating two ideas aimed at the cable industry - and getting support from politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Martin supports à la carte pricing - a system that would allow cable customers to order only those channels they want to watch. Cable companies don't like this idea, but they like Martin's alternative even less. Cable is not covered by the indecency law that applies to broadcast TV. That's why cable subscribers can find R-rated mayhem alongside cartoons on Saturday morning. Martin has indicated that if cable doesn't clean up its act he's ready to support expanding indecency law to cover cable as well.
Not that the indecency law has really done anything to noticeably improve the quality of broadcast TV. It's an obtuse instrument that takes the form of cash fines - the only language media producers seem to understand.
Resorting to indecency law threatens constitutional protections. But as long as people see media moguls cynically using the First Amendment as a cover for making money, they may consider this fair game - and that's a problem. If we get used to thinking of the Constitution as a license for self-serving behavior, we might also take to electing politicians who say we're better off without it.
By the way, in case the Homer Simpson in you is scratching his head, here's the First Amendment. See if you can count all five freedoms: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."