Television is making little monsters of our kids

Mona Charen

July 07, 1993|By Mona Charen

EATING breakfast one recent morning, I glanced up from the newspaper to see, on one of the morning gab shows, a promotional clip for a movie. It featured a young woman striding purposefully into a crowded restaurant, pulling out a gun and LTC calmly shooting three diners to death -- one right between the eyes. All of this was depicted as realistically as possible.

After the commercial, the actress was interviewed about her role and congratulated for her success in landing a part "against type." My breakfast was over.

Not too many years ago, that clip would have been considered too graphic to be seen on television at all, far less at the breakfast hour. But in my lifetime, television fare, which was memorably labeled a "vast wasteland" in the early 1960s by then Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow, has become a toxic waste dump. Whereas television used to be mindless but harmless, today, it is mindless and harmful.

The four major television networks, responding to pressure from Congress (liberals and conservatives alike), have now announced that starting this fall, they will label their programming so that parents can better control what their children watch. But even this minor step toward sanity was taken tremulously, with much fanning of faces and fretting about "censorship."

In a joint statement, the four networks expressed their misgivings, saying "We cannot participate in a process that, while well intended, condemns advertiser-supported television to such bland fare that it would forsake a higher, more sophisticated level of dramatic conflict."

Pssssst, network execs, I'll let you in on a little secret. Most people don't think "Love and War," "Commish" and "Street Stories" are "higher, more sophisticated" anything. OK? Adding a couple of knifings and rapes does not sophistication make.

What it does make is a coarser, meaner society. What an irony! Hollywood, the originator of these dramas, is pretty much wall-to-wall liberals. They have expunged from television every hint of racial bias for fear of encouraging or sanctioning such small-mindedness in their audience. Yet they have purveyed the kind of desensitizing violence that, over time, makes people indifferent to the suffering of their fellow men.

The average young television viewer will witness 25,000 murders before he reaches the age of 18. One study after another has demonstrated that watching a great deal of violence does indeed increase the likelihood that one will engage in it. But that is not even the strongest case for limiting the garbage. The damage is felt not just by those borderline personalities who are sent over the edge (and their victims), all of our souls are sullied by repeated exposure to such horror.

There is, within every human being, a capacity for sadism. We can indulge that potential or suppress it. It is the mark of an advanced civilization to control it. There is nothing more chilling than to sit in movie theater watching a character suffer a gruesome death -- and hear the delighted chuckles of 13-year-olds in the next row.

That's what television and movie violence is doing. It is creating little monsters of our kids -- people who think murder can be highly amusing. Wasn't it one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "heroes" who kills his wife with the quip, "Consider this a divorce"?

Network apologists tirelessly claim that they are meeting public demand. Why, then, have the networks lost 35 percent of their audience in the past 13 years? Besides, there are some appetites that ought not to be indulged. As producer David Putnam ("Chariots of Fire") has observed, the Roman circuses began quite tamely. Only over time did they become more grotesque and bloody:

"What might have been a woman raped publicly by a centurion, a year later was a woman raped publicly by an ass, and 10 years later was 10 women raped publicly by 100 asses. The audience's desire for that goes way back . . . Someone has to say, 'Enough,' because this is a disaster. We are destroying ourselves. Successive societies have destroyed themselves by the failure of their leadership to say, 'I know in many respects what you'd like to see, but you know what? It's bad for us . . . We are untying the fabric of our society.' "

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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