Sen. Paul Simon and TV violence: the politics of persuasion

Sunday, December 21, 2003

The First Amendment says that lawmakers may not control the content of what we see, read and hear, but that doesn’t prevent them from trying.

Time and again, legislators at both the national and state levels have sought to influence content or restrict access to a wide range of literature, music, art and film.

Some of the legislative efforts have been sweeping: mandatory “v-chips” on televisions, for example. Others have been ridiculous: the 1978 effort to prevent Randy Newman’s “Short People” from being played on Maryland’s radio airwaves.

Given the First Amendment’s prohibition of content regulation, most of these efforts are little more than posturing. Courts may strike a law down, but the lawmakers score bragging points for trying to contain unpopular or controversial media content. Too often, it’s about politics, not principle.

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., was driven by something deeper.

Much has been written about Simon since his death Dec. 9, including his early years as a crusading newspaper editor; his service in the Illinois Statehouse; his two terms in the U.S. Senate; his run for the presidency; and his final years as founder and director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

A central theme in his Senate career was his crusade to clean up television. It began in 1985 when Simon turned on the TV in a hotel room and saw a particularly grisly scene. Astonished, Simon began doing some research and quickly became convinced that violent television programs harmed children.

Simon’s impulse was not to censor. Rather, his was the outrage of a Midwesterner who couldn’t believe that the television networks showed so little concern for the welfare of the next generation of Americans. He was determined to make America’s networks take a hard look at their own content.

When the television industry responded to his criticism by saying that antitrust laws prevented it from developing voluntary standards, Simon sponsored the 1990 Television Violence Act, which relaxed regulations and gave networks and cable channels the freedom to explore the issues of television violence and discuss a voluntary code on content.

Over time, the cable channels and independent television stations agreed to adopt a parental-advisory system that would give parents guidance on program content without government participation or intervention.

Throughout this process, Simon talked about the need to preserve First Amendment values, while at the same time trying to shame the industry.

In a 1993 appearance at the National Press Club, Simon said, “The bad news is that extreme conduct invites extreme response. … Lawmakers should be cautious about entering the field of content. But those television moguls who worship the dollar more than responsibility to society incite legislative solution.”

Over the years, Simon carved out a reputation as a defender of First Amendment rights, taking tough stances against amendments establishing public school prayers and prohibiting flag-burning, among other controversial measures. But in this case, he found himself on the opposite side of the fence, criticized by usual allies like the ACLU and newspaper editorial pages. After all, Congress does have a history of using high-visibility hearings to lean on popular arts and media.

Simon felt he had little choice. “I want to defend the First Amendment,” he said. “But I believe that it is not inconsistent to be a believer in the First Amendment and also to face up to problems in our society.”

I didn’t always agree with Simon on some of these issues, but I always respected his passion and commitment, which I saw firsthand in his work as a Freedom Forum trustee. In 2001, I sent him a new book that challenged some past studies that found causation between violence on television and anti-social behavior by children.

A few weeks later, I received a seven-page response to the book, written on his way to Jordan, where he was attending a meeting on water issues in the Middle East.

Simon had methodically gone through the book, quoting chapter and verse with which he disagreed and citing additional studies that supported his strong view that televised violence is a cause of violence in society.

In closing the letter, he recapped why he began pursuing this mission in the first place: “I turned my television set on in a motel in LaSalle County, Illinois, after attending a Democratic meeting and all of a sudden in front of me someone was being sawed in half by a chainsaw, and even though I was old enough to know that it was not real, it bothered me that night, and I thought, ‘What happens to a 10-year-old who watches something like this?’”

Some would say Simon won a battle, but lost the war. Today TV content is labeled, but it remains violent and increasingly graphic.

But that 10-year-old Simon mentioned would now be 28, struggling with monitoring what his own children see on television. Parental advisories can help in that process.

The battle against TV violence was just one chapter in Simon’s career. His legacy included 21 books, among them a biography of Elijah P. Lovejoy, an abolitionist in the 1830s who lost his life for exercising freedom of the press. In the book’s preface, Simon wrote, “His was a life of days filled with service, not of years filled with emptiness; a life of heart, not hate; a life of faith, not fear. I wish no finer destiny for anyone.”

The same certainly could be said of Simon, a public servant to the end.

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