The Attorney General Takes on TV Pollution

NEAL R. PEIRCE

November 01, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Could Janet Reno be to television violence what C. Everett Koop was to smoking?

The attorney general's tough warning to the entertainment industry -- clean up your act or face federal controls -- came like an elixir. This is the act of courageous leadership from the top of American government that we've waited for years to hear.

Predictably, bleatings of First Amendment infringement are emanating from the entertainment industry as it contemplates Ms. Reno's threat.

Yet she isn't asking much. She's only asking that film and video producers handle brutal violence -- shootings, stabbings, chokings, beatings -- the same way they already handle outright obscenity: by keeping it off the air.

And she's telling the networks, cable TV and the independents that they've promised voluntary reform ''over and over and over again,'' and failed to act, and now must face the music. ''The regulation of violence,'' says the attorney general, ''is constitutionally permissible.''

There's big legal doubt about that, given current case law. But who's to say a ban against violent entertainment couldn't pass constitutional muster in view of 30 years of psychological studies showing strong, clear links between brutal acts on television, and violence on our streets?

The entertainment industry can claim there are lots of other reasons young people act violently. They may have been exposed to crack while they were in the uterus, to malnutrition, to physical or sexual abuse, or both. They may have grown up in houses where there's lead in the paint, in neighborhoods where bullets fly, in schools where drug dealers roam school hallways.

But it's also true that television and movies saturate young people's lives with aggression and killings. The filmmakers are convinced violence is what sells; advertisers believe the same, and both purvey this material simply to make money.

By seventh grade the average child has seen 7,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television.

The American Psychological Association reports that by seventh grade the average child has seen 7,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television. When America's streets are then awash in rising tides of violent crime, most of it committed by teen-agers, a trend unique among advanced nations, the entertainers' assertion of innocence rings hollow indeed.

As Sen. Byron Dorgan, R-N.D, commented to uneasy entertainment moguls when they sought to rebut Reno before the Senate Commerce Committee: ''You're sounding like someone who sells cigarettes.''

The best resolution, of course, would be voluntary industry compliance. With Ms. Reno's warning, coming after a 60-day deadline for reform that Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., laid down in August, there may be some hope.

But not, I'd guess, without constant prodding. Everett Koop and other surgeons general didn't get us off the smoking kick with one-time warnings: They made crusades out of their efforts.

And MADD -- Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- didn't transform ** that old phrase, ''one for the road,'' from a genial excuse for a last drink to an almost murderous act without years of public agitation.

Public campaigns of condemnation can work. Take a look at the miserable bunches of smokers huddled around office building doors, banished from their offices whenever they want to take that puff of a cigarette that in another era Hollywood films depicted as the wonderfully suave thing to do.

It will be tougher to stamp out film and TV violence. The violent shows are quick and easy and cheap to make. And up to now the profits have been humongous.

Talk of limits raises First Amendment issues, and draws lots of hot criticism. The New York Times quickly accused Ms. Reno of ''dangerous embrace of a very seductive form of censorship.''

Yet she is right: The entertainers will stall forever without threats. And it is quite reasonable to assume that thousands of murders, beatings, assaults in this nation would not have taken place if young people's minds had not been shaped and misshaped by the murderous violence which Hollywood has drummed into their consciences from infancy on.

At the hearings, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., mousetrapped CBS President Howard Stringer by playing a videotape of an ugly barroom brawl from Monday night's episode of CBS' ''Love and War'' program -- right after Mr. Stringer had boasted that his network's schedule had the least violence of the last 25 years.

The entertainment crowd needs to be on notice that wherever it goes, people will be ready to hold them accountable. And with the high respect she's already won from the American people, Janet Reno may be just the right lady to administer the medicine.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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