Youth violence: MTV disregards its smoking gun

December 09, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

I take it all back. All the glowing things I've written in recent years about Tabitha Soren and MTV's news and public affairs shows, I take them all back.

Soren & Co. join the ranks tonight of those TV personalities who have abused the credibility accorded them as journalists in order to shamelessly shill for their corporate bosses. I can't remember being as outraged by a piece of TV journalism as I am by "Generation Under the Gun," at 9 tonight on MTV.

The problem here is an old one: It's a matter of allowing the fox to report on what's happening back at the chicken coop, and the fox telling us to ignore all the blood and feathers around its mouth.

"Generation Under the Gun" promises to "investigate" youth violence. And it starts out looking pretty good in that regard. The opening visuals are hot, fast-cut, and push emotional buttons right off the bat. When it comes to editing pictures, nobody does it better than MTV.

Against a montage of images from the funeral of a teen-ager killed by a stray bullet, Soren says: "Today, in America, 14 teen-agers will die by gunfire. Same as yesterday, the day before . . . Young Americans are arming themselves and pulling the trigger. What's going on in society that's causing this senseless wave of violence?"

From there, Soren and her producers do something else that MTV does as well as almost anyone on TV: talk to young people. They talk to teen-agers, whom they identify as gang members, in New York, New Orleans and Omaha, Neb.

But while they may talk to teens, they don't listen. Worse, they tell viewers not to believe their ears when the conversation turns to the presence of guns in TV, films and videos.

"I think it's TV that makes me want to shoot," 17-year-old Jeff tells Soren.

"What did you see on TV that makes you want to shoot?" Soren asks.

"The movie 'Colors' got me all hyped up," another 17-year-old, Jeremy, interrupts.

"But don't you think that movie just shows how [expletive deleted]-up life can be if you're constantly strapped and involved in gangs?" Soren asks.

"But they highlight the guns the more than they show how [expletive deleted]-up it is, you know," Jeremy says.

When Soren doesn't get the answer she wants from Jeff and Jeremy, she goes to Dennis Hopper, the director of "Colors," who says -- surprise -- violent films and TV aren't responsible for violence, social conditions are.

And just in case there are viewers who aren't convinced that MTV and its music videos are blameless, Soren closes the segment on pop culture and violence by preaching directly to the viewer in a way that is very uncharacteristic of MTV.

"While no one would deny that pop culture is full of violent images, no direct relationship has been established linking those images to violent behavior," Soren says.

Wrong, Tabitha. Dead wrong. There are more than a dozen recent studies showing such a relationship. The kindest thing that can be said about your denying their existence is that it's ignorance.

MTV and Viacom, the pop culture megacorp that owns MTV, of course, have a multimillion-dollar stake in all of this. They are the major purveyors of violent music videos, as well as those glorifying the values of gangsta rap.

They are also the home of "Beavis and Butt-head." The series has been under intense criticism since October when a mother in Ohio said her 5-year-old son imitated the characters saying, "Fire is good," and subsequently burned down his family's house, killing his 2-year-old sister.

MTV's report acknowledges the debate. How could it do otherwise? But there is absolutely no sense that the economic future of MTV in large part depends on how that debate is resolved.

"Generation Under the Gun" isn't the investigation of kids and guns that it claims. It's a well-edited, but morally-bankrupt attempt at corporate image-mending by MTV.

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