February 1, 2001

Say it Ain't So, Joe

by Robert Corn-Revere

Reading the Washington Post I was shocked, shocked to learn that the Super Bowl, America's premier extravaganza celebrating ritualized combat, was defiled by the presentation of ads for R-rated movies that depict pretend violence. (Christopher Stern, Super Bowl Ads Stir Violence Debate, Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2001.) As has become sadly predictable, the usual critics are demanding new legislation in the wake of these "revelations." Even before Sunday's game, Senator Joseph Lieberman and others had announced plans to introduce a bill to give the FTC authority to prosecute media companies that market movies, games or music with "adult" ratings to children. But mixing a few minutes of TV ads with several hours of bone-crunching pro football, apparently, was the last straw. The Post quoted Dan Gerstein of Senator Lieberman's office as saying, "It was inappropriate to air these ads while millions of children were likely watching. This shows precisely why this legislation is needed."

If there is an appropriate role for the FTC here, perhaps it is to police the false and deceptive claims emanating from Capitol Hill on the subject of media violence. Proponents of regulation regularly assert that social science research has demonstrated a causal link between media images and violent behavior in children. Yet in a Surgeon General's report on youth violence released two weeks ago, the final document de-emphasized its discussion of media influences so as not to distract from the report's main findings: that violence is caused primarily by a child's interactions with parents and by the major risk factors of gangs, drugs and guns.

An FTC report issued last fall, now cited as a primary impetus in the call for legislation, reached a similar conclusion about the social science research. Although it criticized the industry's marketing practices, the report noted that researchers 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."

Perhaps politicians exaggerate research findings about media violence because real life is so uncooperative. After all, violent crime is at its lowest level since 1973, and crimes committed by children and teens dropped 30 percent between 1994 and 1998 alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control, school violence (including fights, injuries and weapons violations) has declined steadily for a decade.

The disconnection between reality and the position of the anti-media crusaders could not be more perfectly crystallized than by the flap over the Super Bowl. For starters, showing a commercial during the Super Bowl is hardly "marketing to children" since 83 percent of the game's viewers are adults. More importantly, it shows that the debate over media violence is not really about the risk of harm to children. If it was, proponents of legislation would be more outraged that the Super Bowl itself is broadcast when kids are watching.

Each year hundreds of thousands of young people are injured playing football 360,000 among persons under 25 in 1996 alone according to the National Safety Council and between 10 and 20 middle and high school students die playing the sport. Might a win-at-all-costs culture of sports worship convert an entertaining, if rugged, sport into a training ground for aggressiveness? After all, the National Alliance for Youth Sports has noted that violent incidents are "spiraling out of control amid post-game police reports and arrest warrants." State high school sports associations report growing numbers of ejections from games for bad sportsmanship, including violent assaults. Because of these trends, the National Association of Sports Officials has started offering assault insurance to referees.

Of course, no one is suggesting that televised sports should be restricted. Such a measure would be absurd in a free society, not to mention unconstitutional. And it would rest on no better "evidence" than the social science studies that repeatedly are distorted to promote new regulations. But the omission of sports from would-be regulators' designs shows that the debate over media violence really is about taste, not harm. Those who propose legislation presume that they can impose their aesthetic and moral judgments about "appropriate" programming on all of society.

What is sorely needed in this ongoing discussion is a healthy dose of common sense. Fortunately, Michael K. Powell, the newly appointed FCC Chairman has good sense in abundance. In discussing the complexities of the issue at an FCC hearing last fall, he asked thoughtfully: "How do I explain when you should hit someone rather than let them pick on your little sister? How should I explain what it means to defend my home and my property against intrusion? [H]ow do you explain the violence and aggressiveness in sports that we revere?" He described efforts to use the law to define and regulate violent media as "dangerous" because "different people have radically different values and preferences," concluding that "in my democracy, I am supposed to preserve . . . the right to do so."

That includes during the Super Bowl.

Copyright Colin Summers 2006 and other years.