Toxic Media versus Toxic Censorship

On the October 23, 2000, issue of TAP, Wendy Kaminer argued that political calls for regulating "toxic media"--like violent movies or profane rap albums--can lead to dangerous censorship and repression. But what if there's a legitimate public interest in monitoring the cultural products kids consume? Michael Massing says that Kaminer's argument is typical of liberals' "reflexive disdain" toward the expressed concerns of parents on this issue. The two writers elaborate in the exchange that follows.

Michael Massing writes:

Anytime a public official issues a peep of protest about the violent fare on television, a chorus of liberal voices rises in denunciation. The most recent instance came in September, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a report criticizing the marketing of movies and music with violent content to young people. Citing the report, both Al Gore and Joe Lieberman blasted Hollywood. And the response from liberal commentators was furious.

Gore's "frenzied and often self-contradictory posturing about Hollywood," Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, provided "a creepy, if G-rated, preview of coming attractions depicting what his administration may be like at its opportunistic and pandering worst." Richard Rhodes, on the Times's op-ed page, derided "moral entrepreneurs" who were "at it again, pounding the entertainment industry for advertising its Grand Guignolesque confections to children." The Nation accused the two Democratic candidates of making "a deft feint to the right, enlisting the Federal Trade Commission for blatantly partisan purposes."

And in her American Prospect piece "Toxic Media," Wendy Kaminer sneeringly dismissed Gore as a "God-loving social purist" with "a desire to cleanse the culture." Gore and others who share his concern about violent programming, she argued, are nothing less than "advocates of censorship."

Kaminer and company seem to see themselves as brave upholders of free speech in the face of vote-hungry politicians. In fact, they represent a new orthodoxy among liberals, who, wrapping themselves in the First Amendment, airily dismiss an issue of genuine concern to millions of American parents.

Needless to say, any talk of restricting what can or cannot appear on television does raise free-speech concerns. But it also involves what we as a society think is appropriate for young people to see and listen to. Any serious consideration of the issue must attempt to balance these competing interests. Yet Kaminer and the rest refuse even to acknowledge the conflict.

Kaminer grudgingly admits that "neither our discourse nor our culture is exactly enriched by gratuitously violent media." Nonetheless, she will brook no restriction of any sort on what appears on television. No limits on the hours during which violent programs can be shown. No ratings system to help parents decide what their children should watch. No restrictions (even voluntary ones) on the marketing practices of entertainment companies. She rejects mere criticism of the movie industry as a form of censorship. No matter how many slasher films Hollywood turns out, and no matter how often they are advertised on TV, Kaminer contends, we must grin and bear it. Let's examine her arguments.

The Slippery Slope. "Living in a free society," Kaminer writes, "entails a commitment not to prohibit speech unless it clearly, directly, and intentionally causes violence. If violent entertainment can be regulated by the federal government because it allegedly causes violence, so can inflammatory political rhetoric, like assertions that abortion providers kill babies. Anti-abortion rhetoric probably has even a clearer connection to violence than any violent movie, but both most be protected. If Disney can be brought under the thumb of federal regulators, so can Cardinal [Bernard] Law when he denounces abortion as murder."

This seems absurd. Nobody in the current debate is even remotely talking about imposing restrictions on political speech; anyone who did would be tarred and feathered. To make such an argument shows how far the new orthodox will overreach to make their point.

Ratings Can Be Abused. "Some may consider the decline of violent entertainment no great loss," Kaminer writes, "imagining perhaps that slasher movies and violent video games will be the primary victims of a new federal labeling regime. But it's not hard to imagine a docudrama about domestic abuse or abortion, or a coming-of-age story about a gay teen, receiving the same restricted rating as a sleazy movie about a serial murderer. In any case, a stringent, federally mandated and monitored rating and labeling system will not enhance parental control; it's a vehicle for bureaucratic control. Federal officials, not parents, will determine what entertainment will be available to children when they devise and enforce the ratings." While any rating system must necessarily reflect subjective judgments, the type of abuses Kaminer here warns of seem far-fetched. And while government bureaucrats may be involved in devising a ratings system, it is parents who ultimately decide what their kids will watch. Certainly many parents are grateful for whatever help they can get in determining what is appropriate fare for their children.

The Data Are Inconclusive. Like many other liberal critics, Kaminer questions the very idea that exposure to violent media negatively affects young people. The FTC study on which "would-be censors rely," she writes, "found no clear causal connection between violent media and violent behavior. 'Exposure to violent materials probably is not even the most important factor' in determining whether a child will turn violent, FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky observed. The most he would say was that exposure to violent media 'does seem to correlate with aggressive attitudes, insensitivity to violence and an exaggerated view of how much violence occurs in the world.'"

It is undoubtedly true that exposure to media violence is not the most important factor in determining whether a child becomes violent. Most young people who watch shoot-'em-ups on TV are not going to go out and re-enact them in real life. Nonetheless, one would think that the correlations Pitofsky cited--to aggressive attitudes and insensitivity to violence--would seem serious enough to warrant concern. Indeed, for more than 30 years now, the data about those effects have been accumulating. In 1972 the U.S. surgeon general's office conducted a comprehensive review of the existing research and found that televised violence contributes to antisocial behavior. Ten years later, the National Institute of Mental Health conducted another review and came to a similar conclusion. Between 1990 and 1996, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry all concluded that TV violence fosters aggressive behavior in the real world. Clearly, millions of parents believe this, as evidenced by their fitful struggles to exercise some control over what their kids watch.

In light of this, it's hard to understand the zeal with which Kaminer and her colleagues dismiss criticism of the entertainment industry--until one considers the broader context in which it is occurring. Traditionally, the fight against media violence has been led by conservatives--William Bennett and Bob Dole, Jerry Falwell and the Christian Coalition. In the process, they have pushed an agenda that goes well beyond concern for the mental health of young people; rather, they seem to be trying to impose on society their own narrow moral vision. If the Christian Coalition got its way, we would find not only bludgeonings and beheadings barred from the airwaves but also sexual couplings, off-color jokes, family dysfunction, and everything else deemed unwholesome by right-wing standards. Anxiety over this seems to underlie Kaminer's concerns about the slippery slope. Such worries, however, should not lead to a blithe rejection of the research showing the potential negative consequences of violent programming.

So what is to be done? I agree with Kaminer that ratings systems are flawed--not, however, because they are instruments of bureaucratic control, but because they're not very effective. With the sleaze of contemporary culture so pervasive, it's hard for even the most determined parents to shield their kids, especially when so many Americans with children are forced to work long hours.

Nor are tightened controls over marketing the answer. The debate over the recent FTC report misses the real point. It's not the commercials that are the problem but the movies themselves. It's the endless flood of gratuitously violent films and misogynistic music lyrics that pose the real threat to young kids, and until something is done to restrict the flow, the harmful fallout will continue.

Certainly one does not want to encourage direct government intervention. The prospect of new laws or executive orders declaring what can and cannot appear on TV or in movie theaters and record stores does pose a threat to free speech. But speaking out against violent media does not. As First Amendment advocates themselves are quick to assert, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. Public figures should continue to criticize and pressure Hollywood to stop producing such noxious fare. If enough voices are raised in protest, the movie studios might finally respond. Kaminer regards this as censorship, but aren't politicians who speak up on such matters exercising their own First Amendment rights? Well, it might be argued, if there's a market for this type of programming, shouldn't entertainment companies be free to provide it? To a degree, yes. But at the same time, society has a right to demand a certain level of responsible behavior by the entertainment industry, especially where young people are concerned.

Tobacco provides a good analogy. Cigarettes are legal but also lethal. At one point, they were widely advertised on TV. But in the late 1960s, as evidence of their toxicity mounted, public-interest groups began demanding more controls. The Federal Communications Commission reacted by calling for more counteradvertising, in the form of commercials dramatizing the health risks associated with smoking. In response, the tobacco companies--realizing the threat such commercials posed to their profits--agreed not to advertise their products on TV. And cigarette commercials have remained off the air ever since.

If Kaminer were writing back then, she would probably criticize such actions as infringing on the free-speech rights of the tobacco companies. Most Americans, though, would applaud such measures as helping to safeguard the nation's health.

No one, of course, would argue that violent movies pose as much of a threat to the nation's health as tobacco does. But the research studies that have accumulated over the years--together with the commonsense concerns of many parents--more than justify the calls on the entertainment industry to exercise greater restraint. And it would help if liberal critics joined in the campaign. If matters are left to the Bennetts and Falwells, the effort to clean up the media could take a troubling direction. At the very least, it's time for liberals to give up their reflexive disdain and recognize that the issue is a serious one requiring vigorous debate.

Wendy Kaminer Responds:

Michael Massing sure is mad at me. It's probably anger, not bad faith, that leads him to misrepresent my views so grossly. I did not and would not foolishly condemn mere criticism of media content as censorship (I began my own writing career as a book critic and generally believe that nothing and no one should be protected from critics.) My column condemned Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and other politicians for threatening to impose governmental controls on the entertainment industry if it continues to produce films, video games, or CDs that they don't like. Massing may disagree that proposed federal restrictions on how entertainments are marketed will affect what entertainments are produced, but he can hardly equate demands for legal restrictions on marketing campaigns with mere "criticism" of marketing techniques or content.

Massing dismisses recent attacks on the media by politicians from both parties as mere peeps of protest. That's not how I'd characterize a series of Senate hearings and legislative proposals aimed at curbing media violence. (It's not just marketing techniques that are being targeted, as testimony at the recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing made clear.) Consider the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) prohibiting "indecency" on the Internet, signed into law by President Clinton and invalidated by the Supreme Court not long after. Was that merely another "peep"? After the CDA was struck down, Congress and the president tried again to criminalize speech in cyberspace with the Child Online Protection Act, which was recently struck down by a federal appeals court. It sought to prohibit commercial dissemination of Internet speech deemed "harmful to minors."

Who decides precisely what speech is harmful to minors? Massing ignores this troubling question at the heart of all censorship debates. He says that restrictions on media involve what "we as a society think is appropriate for young people to see and listen to," and I can only respond, "Who's we?" Our diverse society is deeply divided over questions about sexual morality, race discrimination, militarism, vengeance, and gun ownership. Are minors morally corrupted or energized and informed by rap? We, "as a society," disagree. I doubt that even Massing and I, let alone society, could reach consensus on the ideal media diet for America's youth.

To some extent, this does leave us at the mercy of industry executives. A sophisticated critique of my position would have likened the power of media conglomerates to the power of government and elaborated on the problem of de facto censorship. As I noted in my column, a marketplace controlled by a few media giants is not exactly free and receptive to diverse or unsettling ideas. So my own opposition to government control of the media doesn't reflect any illusions about the quality of discourse that a laissez-faire approach produces. I do think that media critiques are important (and protected by the First Amendment, of course), and I did not oppose voluntary controls by the entertainment industry. How could I? Media executives are in the business of controlling content and marketing, as are editors of magazines like The American Prospect. But I do question the voluntary nature of ratings systems instituted under threats of government control.

Advocates of regulation argue that restrictions on content are justified because the proliferation of violent entertainments constitutes a national emergency: In their view, violent images are direct causes of violent behavior. Pornography causes rape, according to some feminists; sex education causes teenage pregnancy, Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly have suggested; violent video games, CDs, and films cause high school shootings and other horrors, Michael Massing and many others believe. Indeed, it has become conventional wisdom that violent entertainments cause violent behavior.

Massing and I will not resolve the debate about the relationship between images and behavior in this brief exchange. (Interested readers can find a critique of the literature on violence in "Blaming the Media," by Marjorie Heins, in the fall 2000 issue of the Media Studies Journal.) But I do want to stress, again, that the Federal Trade Commission found only a correlation, not a causal relationship, between imaginary and actual violence. Massing observes reasonably that this correlation is cause for "concern," but he's wrong to assume that concern about the effects of violent entertainment justifies regulation of the entertainment industry. The preservation of free speech requires much more than concern; it requires evidence that speech presents actual and more or less immediate dangers--not mere speculation or even educated guesses about its consequences. Violent entertainment may be a problem for society, but it is not a problem that law can solve, so long as we value free speech. If the government could regulate any speech that provoked concern, it could regulate any unsettling or offensive speech; it could, and undoubtedly would, regulate dissent.

Massing dismisses as absurd my suggestion that government regulation of popular entertainments could affect political speech. Either he has an exceedingly narrow definition of "political" or he knows nothing of past and present censorship campaigns. Put aside the view of many people that rap music (which so offends many members of Congress) is political and consider less controversial examples instead. Efforts to protect children (and women) from sex and violence in the media routinely target political speech. Filtering software installed or proposed for use in public schools and libraries across the country is notorious for blocking discussions of homosexuality, abortion, and AIDS prevention, among other political subjects [see Geoffrey Nunberg's article "The Internet Filter Farce," on page 28]. Censorship crusades in public schools have targeted writers like Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, E.M. Forster, and other authors whose works can fairly be called political. During the mid-1990s, a public-school teacher in Colorado was fired for showing Bernardo Bertolucci's antifascist film 1900 to a class of high school seniors; the firing was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court.

People who dare to suggest restricting political speech risk being "tarred and feathered," Massing confidently asserts. Not quite. Some ascend to the nation's highest courts; others are elected to Congress and state legislatures. Is it unrealistic to believe that anti-abortion rhetoric might be restricted? State laws prohibiting protests outside abortion clinics, establishing no-speech "buffer zones," have been passed and upheld by the Supreme Court. (The legality of buffer zone legislation passed in Massachusetts and approved by the state's highest court has recently been questioned in a surprise decision by a federal district court.) It's also worth noting that Congress has very nearly passed a constitutional amendment criminalizing flag burning. The amendment, which was passed several times by the House and very narrowly defeated in the Senate, remains a serious threat. It's hard to imagine a clearer effort to censor political speech, but advocates of a flag-burning amendment are usually re-elected to Congress, not run out of town on a rail.

Massing may regard these efforts as irrelevant to crusades against violent entertainments, but that's a bit like suggesting that discrimination against one stigmatized group of people has nothing to do with discrimination against another. What threatens First Amendment freedoms more than any isolated instance of censorship is the unifying rationale of all censorship campaigns: the presumption that "bad" speech directly causes "bad" behavior and that government officials should be empowered to distinguish good speech from bad. It's not the slippery slope I fear. (That has always seemed like an inapt metaphor to me.) It's the specter of bureaucrats and politicians armed with scythes, hacking through an open field. ยค

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