Issue 79, Fall 2000

Leaves turn, temperatures fall, and hot air rises from the campaign trail, heralding “the silly season.” Now is the time when political candidates hawk simple solutions for complex problems.

Fantasy violence is the target. Vice-President Gore, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and strange bed-fellow Lynne Cheney, blamed Hollywood, popular music and video-games for corrupting youth, at hearings on a Federal Trade Commission report chaired by Senator John McCain.

The report cites promotion of adult-rated products to minors, and calls for the industry to police its marketing, to enforce the ratings codes at movies and video stores, and to make ratings more detailed. Gore and Lieberman raised the specter of regulation if the industry does not “shape up.” Pop-culture warrior Lynne Cheney, of National Endowment for the Humanities fame, and wife of VP-hopeful Dick Cheney, would, if legal, restrict content of movies millions of people enjoy.

Even the FTC Report, however, doesn’t claim that fantasy violence causes real life violence:

“Scholars and observers generally have agreed that exposure to violence in entertainment media alone does not cause a child to commit a violent act and that it is not the sole, or even necessarily the most important, factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes and violence. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that it is a cause for concern….”

Organized medicine has weighed in too, in testimony and public statements, saying that entertainment violence has “measurable and long-lasting” effects on “aggressive attitudes, values and behavior.”

But other experts on youth and violence, like Richard Rhodes, author of Why They Kill, say that “no direct, causal link between exposure to mock violence in the media and subsequent violent behavior has ever been demonstrated.” Rhodes wrote in The New York Times, 9/17/00, that “violence isn’t learned from mock violence. There is good evidence—causal evidence, not correlational—that it’s learned in personal violent encounters, beginning with the brutalization of children by their parents or peers…Violence is on the decline in America, but if we want to reduce it even further, protecting children from real violence in their lives…is the place to begin.?”

For more on effects of media images on children by MIT professor Henry Jenkins, see Censorship News 74. Also noteworthy is Shooting the Messenger, Why Censorship Won’t Stop Violence, by Judith Levine for the Media Coalition.