Blaming media for social ills: convenient excuse

Monday, May 10, 1999

Talk show host ...
Talk show host Jenny Jones, center, leaves after hearing closing arguments in the $50 million wrongful-death suit brought by the family of Scott Amedure against The Jenny Jones Show in Pontiac, Mich., May 5.

There is a saying among lawyers that bad facts make bad law. In its $25 million verdict against a tabloid TV show on May 7, a Michigan jury added a corollary: “Bad television makes terrible law.”

The jury held the corporate owners of “The Jenny Jones Show” responsible in the death of a guest killed by another guest after the taping of a show. The victim had said on the show that he was attracted to the man charged with his murder.

For those who point out that this case was about negligence and not about freedom of expression or of the press, it seems clear that the members of this jury wanted to send a message to the media, did not like tabloid television programs like “The Jenny Jones Show,” and did not want to put themselves in the same category as the large numbers of Americans who watch these shows, love them and want to be on them.

Beware any jury out to punish friends and neighbors for their bad taste.

If negligence, not expression or newsgathering, was the point of their finding, the jurors had to clamber over some rather inconvenient facts: That the accused murderer and his victim flew home together, then went out drinking together; that the show that purportedly embarrassed the gunman into murder was never broadcast; and that the shooting occurred three days after the taping.

More alarming, they were able to convince themselves that the selection of guests for a TV show and the taping of that show makes a media organization liable for the actions of a murderer. These jurors were determined to send a message to the media.

They needn’t have bothered. The media themselves have been spreading that blame-the-media message for some time, as we’ve seen in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School. Newspapers, newscasts and the ubiquitous talk shows have trotted out the usual assertions about violence in the media causing violence on the streets — and in our schools.

Politicians and pundits have joined right in. They’ve attacked television, movies, the Internet, the press and video games. Lacking the time and temperament to come up with real solutions, they instead loose a barrage of accusations targeting expression, assembly and association, and hinting darkly at the need to curb First Amendment rights that they personally don’t hold in esteem.

No doubt, there’ll be more of the same today at the White House, where President Clinton has summoned entertainment and Internet executives to a “summit” on youth violence. If the past is prologue, there will be a lot of promises and concessions that somehow manage to protect political and corporate capital while putting the public’s free speech rights at risk.

The summit is just one more example of political leaders elbowing their way to the head of the line to implicate the media in the Littleton tragedy. Sen. Sam Brownback led a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on video games and violent toys. Reps. Ed Markey and Dan Burton announced a bill requiring a government study of the impact of electronic media on youth violence. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and John McCain promised to introduce a companion bill. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde will hold hearings on urban and suburban violence by kids later this week. Vice President Al Gore and FCC Chairman William Kennard pledged new rules to reduce the Internet’s contribution to youth violence.

No good can come of this, of course. Meaning that no real solutions to violence among our youth will emerge because you can’t get the right answers if you ask the wrong questions.

What can come of it, of course, are dangerous proposals assailing First Amendment rights based on the preposterous concept that depicting violence is essentially the same thing as doing violence.

Such proposals persist in the face of these facts:

  • Despite the increasing violence in the media, actual violence is steadily declining.
  • Despite the recent string of tragedies, schools still are about the safest places our children can be.
  • Despite the number of studies struggling to find a link between the media and violence, the vast majority of our young people are not negatively influenced by the same things that are said to incite those who commit violent acts.

Even so, the panic over media violence continues unabated. We forget too easily what such panics produce. Recall the mid-’50s panic over comic books. They were widely denounced as a menace to our youth. In Senate hearings, solemn experts proclaimed that these comics destroyed the minds and morals of our children.

In a panic of its own, the industry drew up a code of conduct to mollify its critics. A model statute was drafted by the Council of State Governors in 1957, and a number of states and localities passed laws against crime and horror comic books. It took years for the experts to concede that perhaps they had got it wrong and for the courts to sort out the unconstitutionality of the laws that had been passed.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when our leaders engage in blame-the-media. As long as they play this game, the real causes of crime and violence among our young people are not addressed, and as long as the real causes are not addressed, more tragedies like Littleton lie in wait.

The whole notion of censorship in a panic over social ills, real and perceived, has been honored by time. Plato wanted to ban poets from his utopia. Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “Theater, art, literature, cinema, press, posters, and window displays must be cleansed of all manifestations of our rotting world and placed in the service of a moral, political, and cultural ideal.”

Fortunately, there is an occasional voice of reason that makes itself heard above the din during these panics.

One such voice belongs to Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In testimony before the Senate committee last week, Jenkins said, “The key issue isn’t what the media are doing to our children but rather what our children are doing with the media. The vocabulary of ‘media effects,’ which has long dominated such hearings, has been challenged by numerous American and international scholars as an inadequate and simplistic representation of media consumption and popular culture. Media-effects research most often empties media images of their meanings, strips them of their contexts, and denies their consumers any agency over their use.”

We need more such voices of reason and reality, and there must be more of us willing to consider the fact that the calamities that make us afraid for ourselves and our children have their origins in something other than freedom of expression.

Unless that happens, the censors will continue to act out of their fear and prevail out of our inaction.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at