Locked in mortal combat with the media monster

Sunday, September 24, 2006

In the 15th century, the printing press was a technological advance revolutionizing the ability of those who published books to inform, provoke and entertain. Those suspected of using this “new media” to promote heresy or insurrection were threatened with the rack or worse.

How little things have changed. These days, those suspected of wielding new media to inflict psychic injuries among the young and weak of mind also are threatened — with expert studies that seek to prove harm by putting reason on the rack.

Those who believe that certain media are a menace in any hands but their own obsess over the potential negatives and dismiss the demonstrated positives of electronic media. They show impatience with common sense, disrespect for parental responsibility, and an unrequited infatuation with “studies” when courts fail to support their attempts to regulate.

We should not be surprised that yet another round of research on the potential harm caused by electronic media is being ordered up by legislation passed by the U.S. Senate last week (Sept. 14).

With strong bipartisan support, the Children and Media Research Advancement Act targets “the screen media” — television, computers and video games. This amendment to the Public Health Service Act would task the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with a years-long, multimillion-dollar project. The goal: “to review, synthesize and report on research, theory and applications in the social, behavioral and biological sciences regarding the roles and impact of the use of and exposure to electronic media on youth.”

In effect, it would be a study of studies.

The supporters of such research are undeterred by similar efforts directed at previous technological advances in communications and entertainment. Such studies — and there have been many, both privately and publicly funded — appear to make up in mass what they lack in causal connections.

It’s like watching the same “screen media” over and over, thinking that the ending (or results) will be different this time.

Yet the drive to tame new media never loses momentum or new targets.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups are not just preoccupied with violence or indecency in electronic media. Online marketing is one of their targets, too. Wielding new labels such as “adver-gaming” and “viral marketing,” they have launched campaigns against interactive technology that allows those watching television to be transported to Internet sites that “push” junk food, as well as other promotions involving membership opportunities and tie-ins with movies and TV.

Expect more research on these innovations.

As much as political leaders, advocates, researchers and some parents would like to hope otherwise, sure proof of the cause-and-effect relationship between media content and bad behavior among adults or children remains elusive.

But the assumption is pervasive, especially when an event occurs that shocks our conscience and sends us in a desperate search for causes and answers. For example, when a 25-year-old Montreal man used a semiautomatic rifle to turn a junior college campus into a killing field, many minds raced to the conclusion that video games made him do it.

The Sept. 13 rampage left “a community asking questions about the dark world of alienated youths and their fascination with violent video games,” The Washington Post reported. The article also quoted a couple of experts who suggested a direct connection between video games and the shootings.

To suggest that video games triggered this tragedy would be as simplistic as to suggest that the existence of guns or college campuses was to blame.

Being against violence or indecency or being “for” our kids is low-hanging political fruit for politicians. They can’t help themselves when they exploit our understandable concerns. But we must not lose sight of the fact that millions upon millions of adults and children play video games, some obsessively, yet they never take up a gun and start spraying bullets into a crowd of innocents.

To argue that violence in media causes actual violence, or that indecency in media causes harmful sexual adventurism, is to argue that the cleansing of movies, TV, radio, video games, comic books, the Internet and even books will remove crime, perversion and other unpleasantness from our midst.

If only it were that easy. If only that weren’t the pure definition of intellectual, cultural and political slavery.

There should be no surprise or shock that human beings gravitate toward entertainment that reflects life, stimulates the senses, sparks a laugh, offers an excuse to waste a bit of time. It is somewhat of a surprise to realize that so many of us lack the confidence in our own ability to distinguish between life and fantasy or between cause and effect.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.

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