"Media violence = pollution

A couple of weeks ago, when Mayor Peterson held a press conference to raise concerns about the impact of media violence on children, I showed up early. I wasn’t the first one there; a couple of guys were already on the scene and I overheard them talking about the subject at hand. Their conversation went something like this:

“You know,” one of the guys was saying with the kind of overwhelming self-assurance guys sometimes assume when they want you to know they’ve been around the block a few times — i.e. watched a heckuvalot of TV, seen Hostel and all the Saw movies, not to mention all those hours playing Grand Theft Auto — “no matter how they try to cut it, they can’t show a causal connection between what people watch and what they do.”

The other guy furrowed his brow and nodded. He allowed that research was a good thing, but that people needed to remember this was also a free speech issue.

I was suddenly overcome with déjà vu. I had heard these sorts of exchanges before, back in those not-so-distant days when “experts” in the media kept telling us the jury was still out on the effects of human behavior on climate change, that more studies were needed before we could take action.

I realize that in some quarters we’re still hearing that today. And Dick Cheney is still insisting that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

Anyway, the mayor arrived. He brought a number of people with him, including a former commissioner from the Federal Communications Commission, a psychologist, a family advocate, a representative of the video games industry and, last but not least, a mom. The mayor, we know, has had a checkered history trying to deal with violent video games. As he explained to us, the Columbine massacre deeply affected him. It made him keenly aware of the extent to which our society glorifies violence and he wants to do something about that. One of the first things he tried was to regulate the availability of violent video games to youth in Indianapolis. This was struck down by the courts.

While now conceding that regulating this kind of material “isn’t going to fly,” Mayor Peterson, who is watching his city suffer through a crime wave, hasn’t given up on trying to deal with our culture’s propensity for violence. He wants people to be thinking about it and talking about it. He wants the media to take greater responsibility for the images of violent behavior and exploitation that it relies on to pad its bottom line.

As the mayor spoke, I sensed a tension in the room. That tension wasn’t about kids or crime, it was about money. “We all want the same things,” the mayor said, referring to his guests and, more specifically, to the people representing the video game industry. “We just differ on how to get there.”

Nobody is for murder, beating women or child abuse. But media producers derive big profits by depicting these behaviors, packaging them and making them available, at all hours, via an ever-growing array of delivery systems. They know that as offensive as these images are, there’s something in the human animal that wants to look — and that we’ll pay for the chance.

There’s a lot of money to be made in spewing this stuff. Media producers want to make that money as long as they can, they don’t want to stop. When they suspect that someone might hold them accountable — draw a line between the permission for antisocial behavior their images suggest and violent acts in the real world — they take cover behind the First Amendment — as if the freedom of speech was really a license to print cash.

The psychologist the mayor brought to his press conference was careful to say that it was almost impossible to find a causal connection between media products and particular acts of violence. But she emphasized that there was no question about violent media being a risk factor affecting the development of kids. In a way it was like saying that while we can’t blame our heavy use of fossil fuels on that terrible cold spell we had last February, we can safely say that if we keep polluting the atmosphere there’s going to be hell to pay.

Just as we’re finding that the real price of petroleum must include all the costs associated with what it does to our health and the environment, we need to find a way to make the producers of violent media take responsibility for what they’re doing to our cultural environment. Violent media is like gasoline: Just because we get off on it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. We don’t need more research to know this; we need common sense.



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