Free Market Violence


November 30, 2002
The American Prospect


Browse in Politics

I was surprised that Todd Gitlin chose to scold congressional Democrats for trying to tackle TV violence (“Imagebusters: The Hollow Crusade Against TV Violence,” Winter 1994). His insights regarding the media are astute, as usual. But his arguments against congressional action are mostly beside the point, and his superior and disparaging tone is not helpful. Gitlin dismisses concern about TV violence as a middle-class neurosis, a revival of the “iconophobia” that arose early in the century with the arrival of motion pictures. He ridicules senators addressing this issue as inferior intellects who aren’t up to facing real issues like gun control.

Well, so what if the people who raised the issue early in the century happened to be middle class? The question is whether they were onto something, which they were. Similarly, what difference does it make that some advocates of action on TV violence are not strong on gun control? Regrettably, Gitlin gets so stuck in the disparagement mode that he never gets to the real issue: Are there ways to deal with violence in the media that do not compromise free speech, do not give more power to government censors or expert panels, but rather give more power to parents and citizens generally?

There are, and it’s important to talk about them. Media violence isn’t just about kids and crime. It’s also about citizenship in a media age. Ultimately, it’s about the chasm between the Right’s family-values polemics and its free market hedonism, which gives rise to the very values it deplores on the tube.

Legislation isn’t always the best answer, of course, especially where First Amendment values are concerned. But sometimes new laws are needed to enable citizens to express their views; the First Amendment does not exist for the media alone. It took legislation, after all, to create the modern corporation, including those in the mass media. The broadcast and cable industries are built on legislation, too, and more will be needed to establish the “information superhighway.” Now isn’t it possible that legislation is needed to right the balance and to give citizens more tools to deal with the media deluge that government helps create?

Gitlin seems to think that to address television violence precludes action on other fronts. That is silly. It hardly needs saying that the epidemic of violence in America has many sources and that Congress must do many things to reduce it. Even the toughest gun control conceivable would not make crime disappear tomorrow, any more than action on TV violence would (or more jobs and better schools, for that matter.) Besides, Gitlin is just plain wrong in suggesting that TV violence is a refuge from gun control. Some members of Congress are strong advocates on both fronts.

Free speech is a more serious concern. But to make Arnold Schwarzenegger the poster child for the First Amendment is a stretch. One could argue just as well that guns and gore are impediments to free expression, a kind of toxic placebo that crowds out a broad range of alternatives.

As we all know, the media corporations that squeal about censorship practice it every day, in news as well as programming. They censor out zaftig female newscasters and bad news about corporate owners or sponsors. Back in the ’50s, the networks censored reports on the health effects of smoking. Cigarette sponsors prescribed heavy doses of video violence instead. “Although other crimes may be introduced, somebody must be murdered,” read the instructions to writers for one early CBS show called Man Against Crime, which was sponsored by Camel cigarettes.

In other words, the choice is not between free speech and censorship. It’s between the corporate media’s impediments on free speech and a broader framework in which the viewing public has a more effective say. Restraints on violence, if properly crafted to amplify public opinion rather than set loose government censors, could actually encourage a flowering of creativity on the tube.

Regrettably, Gitlin doesn’t explore this possibility. Instead he follows the industry in assuming that all approaches will lead to heavy-handed censorship. Next thing you know, the Gestapo will be at our doors to confiscate TV Guide and Shakespeare will be banished from the tube (as though the networks hadn’t banished him already).

That’s more silliness. The V-chip, promoted by Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, is one solution based on parent and citizen power, rather than censorship. It’s basically just a high-tech lock that would return control of the TV set to parents. Critics suggest that parents are lazy: if you don’t want the kids to watch, just turn off the set. That’s a fair point, for well-off families with a parent — or servant — at home. But working and single parents can’t stand guard at the set 24 hours a day. The V-chip wouldn’t violate free speech and would give parents a more effective way to turn violence off.

Another approach is the one sponsored by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, for whom I work. Dorgan’s bill would provide information to parents and others about the violence level of prime-time and children’s shows, including who sponsors the shows. Nonprofit groups would conduct the surveys through small federal grants. They would be done four times a year, including at least one sweeps week. They would not purport to judge shows or evaluate the context of the violence. Rather, they would simply alert parents to shows they might want to take a closer look at. Contrary to media protestations, Shakespeare would be safe. He might even get to make an occasional appearance.

Finally, why does Gitlin think it’s such a bad idea for Democrats to talk about family values? For years, conservatives have blamed liberals for the erosion of those, along with many other things that should be laid at the feet of the executives who attend their $ 10,000-a-plate dinners. A columnist for the Washington Times even blamed the public fixation on Tonya Harding and the Bobbits on the “liberal media.”

Talk about projecting one’s own faults onto the other guy. The media circus surrounding Tonya et al. was not the work of “liberals.” It was the “marketplace” in action — corporate media style. It’s what happens when enterprise is driven solely by a desire to make money. Dan Quayle was right: the media generally embody crummy values. Where he’s wrong, and downright cowardly along with the rest of the Right, is in the nature of those crummy values and where they point the finger.

Instead of reflexively defending Murphy Brown or violence on TV, progressives should pursue the underlying premise of the Right’s critique. When a reviewer for one right-wing journal proclaims that TV does not reflect the nation’s values but seeks to “move audiences towards the media industry’s vision of values,” that’s a startling admission. It’s saying — free market theory notwithstanding — that corporate producers pursue their own agendas and don’t just serve the needs of their customers. Hmmm. What about oil companies, the packaging industry, and all the rest?

That’s a debate that progressives should be eager to engage. When the overwhelming majority of Americans think there’s too much violence on TV but the media gives it to them anyway, it says as much about mass markets and corporate power as it does about the media.

So let’s hold them to their own polemics. The right likes to talk about responsibility. How about some responsibility where the corporate media and its advertisers are concerned? The right likes to talk about the sanctity of the home and family. How about helping families close their doors to the incessant barrage of the commercial culture? This isn’t just politics. It’s a real problem in America, and one that Democrats should start to address — not least because Republicans won’t.