Imagesbusters, the Sequel

Free Market Violence

Jonathan Rowe

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
congressional action are mostly beside the point, and his
and disparaging tone is not helpful. Gitlin dismisses concern
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

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
ways to deal with violence in the media that do not compromise
speech, do not give more power to government censors or expert
panels, but rather give more power to parents and citizens

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
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,
those in the mass media. The broadcast and cable industries are
built on legislation, too, and more will be needed to establish
"information superhighway." Now isn't it possible that
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
action on other fronts. That is silly. It hardly needs saying
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
out a broad range of alternatives.

As we all know, the media corporations that squeal about
practice it every day, in news as well as programming. They
out zaftig female newscasters and bad news about corporate owners
or sponsors. Back in the '50s, the networks censored reports on
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
speech and a broader framework in which the viewing public has a
more effective say. Restraints on violence, if properly crafted
amplify public opinion rather than set loose government censors,
could actually encourage a flowering of creativity on the

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
banished from the tube (as though the networks hadn't banished

Subscribe to The American Prospect

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
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
families with a parent--or servant--at home. But working and
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
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
the context of the violence. Rather, they would simply alert
parents to shows they might want to take a closer look at.
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
$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
values and where they point the finger.

Instead of reflexively defending Murphy Brown or violence
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
"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
and don't just serve the needs of their customers. Hmmm. What
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

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
to talk about the sanctity of the home and family. How about
helping families close their doors to the incessant barrage of
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.

The Either/Or Fallacy

Sissela Bok

Todd Gitlin takes aim at liberals who advocate steps to reduce
media violence. He blames them for making common cause with Dan
Quayle and other conservatives in efforts to "demonize the
He points to the naivet‚ of assuming that the media are the main
obstacles to equality and justice and domestic tranquility. The
message behind "the clangor of current alarms about television
violence," he claims, seems to be, "Guns don't kill people,
picture tubes do."

No sense of guilt need ensue, however, for either liberals or
conservatives who ignore ideological boundaries as they speak out
against media violence. The fact is that the great majority of
Americans, no matter what their political persuasion, now view
levels of television violence in America with alarm. According to
a Times Mirror Center survey made public in March 1993, the pro-

portion of Americans who regard TV violence as harmful to society
has risen from 64 percent in 1983 to 80 percent in 1993. In
December 1993, the Los Angeles Times reported on a survey
showing that "almost 4 out of 5 Americans believe violence in
television programs directly contributes to the amount of
in society."

Most liberals who hold such beliefs, moreover, fully share
concern over the havoc wrought by firearms in our society. Far
imagining that picture tubes, not guns, kill people or that the
media are the main obstacles to domestic tranquillity, most of
would applaud his call for serious debate about guns and bullets.
Conservatives, too, are shifting on this issue. Increasingly,
Americans are concluding that one-dimensional approaches to the
multiple roots of violence are bound to fail. As Dr. Deborah
Prothrow-Stith, co-author with Michaele Weissman of Deadly
, insists: "It's not an either/or. It's not guns
media or parents or poverty."

Gitlin himself accepts most of these factors as contributing to
present levels of violence. He would presumably include them in
serious debate about guns and bullets that he rightly sees as
indispensable. Why not, then, also include the role of TV
Why single out Attorney General Janet Reno, Senator Paul Simon,
others who have sounded the alarm as suffering from "iconophobia
and moral panic"?

Gitlin's summary dismissal of their arguments is the more
surprising since he expressly agrees with them that there are
between TV violence and societal violence. He refers, as they do,
to Violence and Youth, the 1993 report commissioned by the
American Psychological Association, and he quotes its unequivocal
conclusion regarding the correlation between higher levels of
viewing violence on television and increased acceptance of
aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.

But correlation, Gitlin points out, "is not necessarily cause."
can't know how much societal violence is actually caused by media
violence. Yet our inability to pinpoint cause and effect so
precisely has not stood in the way of discussing and promoting
policies to curtail cigarette smoking and drunk driving; it is
clear, therefore, why it should block policy debates about TV
violence. Indeed, the television industry has already taken
seriously the need to curtail the glamorization of smoking and of
drunk driving on its programs, without requiring absolute
documentation of the causative links between TV viewing and
incidence of such conduct.

An approach to causation more commonly used in considering
hazards is that of probabilistic causation. Viewed in this
perspective, it is not necessary that a suspected risk, such as
cigarette smoking that is thought to play a causal role with
respect to lung cancer, produce that effect in all or even most
cases, nor that it be the only or the greatest cause of that
effect. Rather, the more appropriate standard is, as law
Fred Schauer points out, that it "increases the incidence of the
effect for a population and increases the likelihood of the
in an individual case."

Even so, Gitlin suggests, the harmful effects that can be linked
TV viewing are not nearly so great as to justify the concern by
Reno. He estimates that the "copy-cat crimes" reported in the
result in no more than 100 deaths per year, or "0.28 percent of
total of 36,000 murders, accidents, and suicides committed by
gunshot in the United States in 1992."

Other commentators, taking more than copy-cat crimes into
have arrived at sharply differing figures. Psychiatrist Brandon
Centerwall has concluded from large-scale epidemiological studies
of homicide in America and abroad that "if, hypothetically,
television technology had never been developed . . . [v]iolent
crime would be half of what it now is." If so, there would be
10,000 fewer homicides today, he suggests, 70,000 fewer rapes,
700,000 fewer injurious assaults. Still others have estimated
TV programs may contribute incrementally to 10 percent of violent

All the more reason, given such diverging claims regarding the
harm from television violence, not to leave its role out of
public policy debate--the kind of debate that Gitlin already
advocates with respect to guns and bullets. Such a debate also
should consider the cumulative effects of exposure of children to
violence, not only on television but in their homes and in
communities: the harm to children from witnessing violence, even
when they are not themselves beaten or otherwise abused, is too
often neglected.

But Gitlin has a further reason to view television violence as
receiving disproportionate attention. He suggests that concern
about its role is not only misplaced, given the low levels of
societal harm he attributes to it, but an evasion of the genuine
issues at stake. People engaged in "the symbolic crusade against
media violence . . . are saying, in effect, that they either
know how to, or do not dare, do anything serious about American

For children, however, there is nothing purely symbolic about
television. They are unable, through at least the age of three or
four, to distinguish between fact and fantasy; even older
rarely manage to keep "real life" violence and vicarious violence
in watertight compartments-- least of all those for whom the
similarities between what they see on the street and on
are only too evident. The experiences of children who know
at close hand testify to the role of television violence not as a
unique risk factor but as one interacting with many others; even,
at times, as the only "safe" activity for children living with
dangers no one ought to have to endure in our society.

Still, Gitlin's is a natural first reaction for anyone convinced
that TV violence is dwarfed by other causal factors such as
poverty, family breakdown, the availability of firearms, or
substance abuse: Why not begin with what is truly important,
than waste time and energy on the contents of TV programming?
Indeed, critics of gun control level the same type of accusation
against those who, like Gitlin, stress the devastating role of
in our society. To these critics, the focus on guns is unlikely
make much of a dent in reducing crime and merely distracts
attention from the real causes of violence and serious

Such criticisms are valuable insofar as they caution against
stress on any one causal factor and against assumptions that only
one remedy is therefore needed; but not when they are used for
summary dismissal of any such factor. It is as important not to
dismiss or downplay factors prematurely in the case of violence
when it comes to other complex, multidimensional social problems.
Take heart disease: to be sure, there are disagreements about how
best to reduce its prevalence; but few critics maintain that,
because some risk factors such as smoking or heredity or
cholesterol contribute more than others to this prevalence, there
is reason to leave the latter out of consideration. On the
contrary, research and inquiry clearly have to continue regarding
each one, including those thought to be of lesser magnitude.

In the past few years, scholars, community advocates, health care
professionals, and public officials have increasingly come to
the problems of violence from a public health perspective, in
addition to legal and other perspectives. The public health
perspective, long familiar with respect to heart disease,
motor vehicle injuries, and other major causes of death and
disability, allows a wide-ranging and integrated exploration of
incidence of different forms of violence, of possible risk
and of approaches to risk reduction and prevention.

Such a public health perspective serves as a refreshing antidote
any urge either to address complex problems in terms of only one
risk factor or to dismiss concern with any one factor on the
grounds that it is not the only one or even the most significant
one. Too often in the past, the discussion of violence in America
has petered out in stand-offs among advocates of one or more
causes and "serious" remedies.

If the current debate is to have a chance to go beyond such
stand-offs, it must take the public health perspective into
while also giving voice to the individuals with most at stake in
the outcome of the violence debate--the parents and neighborhood
groups struggling against sometimes overwhelming odds, the
organizations mobilizing to combat violence, the pediatricians
social workers who work to help individuals overcome its
consequences, and above all, the children who know violence in
their daily lives.

Todd Gitlin Responds:

Rowe says "the real issue" is violence in the media. This is the
nub of our disagreement. To me, the real issue is flesh-and-blood
violence. On a scale of significant American evils, I rank
in the media low--certainly lower than poverty, chronic
unemployment, murder, rape, the devastation of cities, the
battering of women.

Let's get serious. Where are the urgent-sounding, now-or-never
press conferences on these subjects? Where are the media exposes?
Where is the steady passionate outcry? Where are the petitions?
Where are the filibusters against any spending bill that doesn't
contain a measure to create a Civilian Conservation Corps to put
unemployed youth--at greatest risk of killing and being
constructive work?

I don't, as Rowe alleges, think "that to address television
violence precludes action on other fronts." But I observe that we
have been through decades of these cycles of alarm about
violence while the actual devastation of our cities proceeds like
a long, wasting disease. I have just had the depressing
of reviewing several academic studies of the association between
television and violence from the early 1970s. Wearily, each of
alludes to socioeconomic causes that presumably play a part in
generating flesh-and-blood violence. Many point out that if
television is a factor in causing violence, it is only one
Rowe is right that one needn't use the issue of TV
as a refuge from gun control. But is it not of some, er, interest
that certain prominent would-be censors of TV violence--I
Senator Ernest F. Hollings in particular, co-sponsor of the
Children's Protection from Violent Programming Act of
even the most meager gun control provisions of the Brady Bill?
this not speak to, at the very least, a certain irony?

I have no quarrel with Representative Markey's V-chip. I support
on the ground that parents deserve help controlling their TV
just as they need Off-buttons. But I think it absurdly naive to
imagine that V-chips are going to make a dent in the 38,000
deaths that took place last year in America.

I don't know where Rowe gets the notion that I think it's a bad
idea for Democrats to talk about "family values." I think it's a
fine idea. But again, let's do it seriously, not demagogically.
Take the Murphy Brown controversy. Over the past two
decades, the proportions of babies born out of wedlock have
in every industrialized country. They have doubled,
and in the United Kingdom, quadrupled--despite Margaret
Thatcher's heroic efforts to shred the social net and restore the
stigma to the "undeserving poor." Murphy Brown did not
influence marriage rates in London--or in Japan, where
has also doubled, though the doubled rate is still minuscule. To
talk about family values seriously would be to talk seriously
the 20-year-long decline real wages; about publicly funded child
care and parental leave, and, yes, about the nihilism of popular
culture, as well.

Rowe wishes to "enable citizens to express their views," and I
certainly join him. In "Imagebusters," I advocated the most vig-

orous and direct expressions of disgust directed toward media
figures who clutter the airwaves with slashes and slime. I'm all
for picketing the so-called responsible executives of General
Electric, CBS, ABC, Fox, the various producers and syndicators
cable operators at their offices and homes. (What shall we make
their, and their advertisers', family values when they deface the
values that circulate through other people's living rooms? The
values that matter to them are market values.) I'm for running
in the papers naming their names. I'll happily join Rowe raising
hell at their stockholders' meetings. From what I know of it, I'm
not particularly exercised by Senator Dorgan's bill to provide
information about the "violence level" of TV shows, though
no way to compute an objective measure. It's fine to inventory
names of advertisers who subsidize garbage.

But let's go further. Let's charge the TV license-holders, who
engorge themselves at the public trough, fees that are hefty
to finance several serious public television networks. For that
matter, let's institute term limits for license-holders. The
culture would certainly benefit. And I predict that, still, at
turn of the next millennium, with some 1,500,000 handguns having
been manufactured every year (at the current rate) and millions
bullets to fit them, with millions of kids spilling from wrecked
families and wrecked neighborhoods into the streets and getting
lifelong training in nihilism, we'll still be tearing our hair
over American violence.

Sissela Bok cites Dr. Brandon S. Centerwall's epidemiological
research on the link between television exposure and violent
I have read Dr. Centerwall's reports and recommend a close
(The chief one is "Exposure to Television as a Cause of
in Public Communication and Behavior, ed. George Comstock,
Vol. 2, 1989.) He checked homicide rates among white South
Africans, Americans, and Canadians during the years following the
introduction of television. (In South Africa, this didn't happen
until 1975.) Ten to fifteen years after television spread
throughout these societies, there was a doubling of the homicide
rate among whites. Centerwall was unable to explain this
shift by changes in age distribution, economic growth, civil
unrest, or the availability of firearms, among other factors.
the rate of murder committed without weapons doubled in the U.S.
and Canada between 1965 and 1975. An impressive finding indeed.
Still, he doesn't consider the possibility that the Vietnam War
unleashed murderous impulses in the United States. (According to
his figures, it was about 1967 that the white homicide rate in
United States got back to the level of 1945.)

If one allows for the weakness of all such studies, namely that
correlation isn't cause, Centerwall has made an interesting
argument. It is not, however, an argument against violent
television. It is an argument against television. If
television is pernicious_--and I am inclined to believe it is, in
spades_--is this because of depictions of violence or other
Just how violent was the television of the 1950s that Centerwall
holds responsible for exploding, like a time bomb, in the minds
exposed children years later? Might it be that TV editing is
unnerving? That the everyday broadcast of images of wealth and
on television, especially when broadcast into the homes of
who have neither, incites envy and rage? Or that there's some
effect of television watching as such? Centerwall's research
doesn't tell us. It doesn't ask.

In any event, I see no reason to believe that television violence
occupies the same causal position with respect to flesh-and-blood
violence that smoking does with respect to lung cancer or alcohol
does with respect to drunk driving. Moreover--no trivial
concern-- it
is far harder to pin down just what constitutes violence on
television than it is to pin down just what constitutes smoking
drinking. Prohibition is problematic enough; vague
prohibitions trifle with the First Amendment in an especially
troubling way.

I have no quarrel with a public health approach if it is without
illusions and keeps its sense of proportion. In the case of
violence, there are plenty of real smoking guns, and I persist in
thinking that the current crusade is choosing easy politics and
easy target--Hollywood amorality--over the far tougher project of
chipping away at the motives and means of murder.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)