|VIOLENCE AND THE MEDIA|
September 24 ,1999
TERENCE SMITH: In the past year, the nation's airwaves have been filled
with scenes of horrific violence, from Columbine High School to offices
in Atlanta, Georgia, to a church in Fort Worth, Texas just last week.
SPOKESPERSON: She got shot!
TERENCE SMITH: In the wake of these incidents, Americans have been
questioning themselves about whether the violence on our streets has
any relationship to the violence on our screens. Hollywood immediately
found itself on the defensive. Two violent episodes of ongoing television
series were pulled, and a handful of others reworked. Now comes an ambitious
new study out this week that asserts that the volume of violence on
television and movie screens continues at very high levels.
ROBERT LICHTER, Center for Media & Public Affairs: Hollywood is
selling and glamorizing violence, and it may, in the process, be making
American kids more violent.
TERENCE SMITH: Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and
Public Affairs, billed the study as the most comprehensive look at a
broad range of media to date. The study found that, on average, television
and movie viewers encounter an act of serious violence once every four
minutes, serious violence being defined as murder, rape, kidnapping,
and assault with a deadly weapon. The study also analyzes how violence
is portrayed in the media.
ROBERT LICHTER: It's remarkable the degree to which violence in entertainment
is presented as relatively harmless, necessary, and even laudable way
of solving problems. We found that good guys commit violence almost
as often as bad guys in both television and movies.
TERENCE SMITH: Among the top ten most violent TV series cited by the
study: CBS' long-running and highly rated "Walker, Texas Ranger,"
HBO's "Oz," an award- winning series about life behind bars.
And the syndicated show, "Mortal Kombat," which was spawned
by a controversial video game. Among the top ten most violent movies,
Warner Brothers' "Lethal Weapon 4," "The Mask of Zorro,"
and topping the list, the Oscar- winning "Saving Private Ryan."
ROBERT LICHTER: You don't want to get rid of the "Private Ryans."
You don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. But that bath
water is getting pretty toxic at this point. If we don't get rid of
some of it, it's going to start to harm the baby.
TERENCE SMITH: Shortly after the Columbine incident, Jack Valenti,
head of the Motion Picture Association of America, urged the entertainment
industry to use restraint and to excise any gratuitous violence. This
week, his organization criticized the Lichter study, saying it fails
to reflect the more recent self-policing actions of the industry. Attending
the press conference in support of the study was Kansas Senator Sam
SEN. SAM BROWNBACK, (R) Kansas: This is something we need to examine
and discuss, not legislate. I think it's very important that we do this
in an atmosphere where we're saying to people, "we're not trying
to pass any laws or trying to censor anybody, but we are trying to examine
the totality of the impacts of where the American culture has gone."
TERENCE SMITH: Nonetheless, Senator Brownback has introduced legislation
that would create a Senate task force to address what he called the
country's cultural crisis.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us now for a discussion on violence in mass
media are Robert Lichter, an author of the study whom you saw on tape
few moments ago; E.J. Dionne, a "Washington Post" columnist
and scholar of government at the Brookings Institution; and Rupert Wainwright,
the director of "Stigmata," which debuted as the number-one
grossing film two weeks ago. He has also directed advertisements and
award-winning music videos. Welcome to you all. Mr. Wainwright, let
me ask you, the study essentially argues that the entertainment industry
is filling its products with more and more gratuitous violence. Is it
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: I think that violence is inherently attractive.
And I think that we live in a very violent society. And I think that
there's been violence in entertainment from the Iliad, through the Bible,
through Shakespeare. I don't think violence in entertainment is going
away. And I think from my own point of view, I'm much more concerned
with the access that people have to the tools of violence, than I am
about them seeing violence on the screen. I'm much, much more concerned
about government protecting individuals by gun laws than I am protecting
individuals from watching what goes on the screen.
TERENCE SMITH: Robert Lichter, what is the evidence that violence on
the screen engenders violence in life?
ROBERT LICHTER: Well, this is the sort of thing that is consensus now
in the scientific community. Everybody from the Surgeon General to the
American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded after looking at all the
research that violence in the media does contribute to violent behavior
among kids, also makes people become desensitized to violence -- in
the case of some kids, scares kids. But I'm always struck when Hollywood
people say it's not us; it's the guns out there. Yet you look at the
product and what the product does is to glamorize good guys who use
guns. So we may need gun control laws, maybe Hollywood needs to control
the way that it glamorizes the use of guns.
TERENCE SMITH: E.J. Dionne... I'm sorry, Rupert.
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: Yes. I was going to ask you a question. Obviously
I'm sensitive to the points you make here, but the entertainment that
Hollywood makes... by the way I'm not here to defend Hollywood ...but
the entertainment that Hollywood makes goes to all over the world. And
if you look, for example, at the violence in Canada or England or Australia
or New Zealand and see substantially the same programming, you see very
radically different rates of violence, especially lethal violence, than
you do in the United States of America.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, that actually touches on a point that E.J. Dionne
raised in a column earlier this week. You raise the question, is there
a link between the gun culture in this country and the violence that
we see on our entertainment?
E. J. DIONNE: Yes. I think the problem with the argument we've had
since Columbine and through all these other dreadful events is that
each side throws up the issue of culture or guns as a shield against
the part of the argument they don't like. If you want to defend violence
on television, you say the problem lies entirely with guns. In the meantime,
gun control opponents keep saying no, no, no, it's not guns, it's the
culture. I think the fact is it's both and they may be intertwined.
Doing something more serious about gun control ought not to block you
from asking Hollywood, asking film producers to be more socially responsible.
When you look at what the entertainment industry has done toward attitudes
about race, about gender, about gays and lesbians, they have tried to
engender a more tolerant atmosphere in our country. And that's good.
If they can do that about prejudice, certainly they can think about
the impact of what they put on our screens and televisions, especially
on kids, and think about doing something about that. It's not censorship;
it's corporate responsibility.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a sentiment to do that, Mr. Wainwright in Hollywood,
in the community that you're familiar with?
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: Well, I'm very familiar with my own personal sense
of responsibility in terms of what I want to show in films. I would
say that a lot of people share that awareness but at the same time you
have to remember Hollywood is not an organization. Hollywood is a town
with a lot of competing corporate entities that are all trying to get
a larger market share. And essentially what you've got is a capitalist
system that is putting up entertainment, not even that it particularly
cares for but is just trying to get viewers. I'm sad to say that time
and time and time again, that the people who own those corporations
make more money when they put out violent programming than they do when
they put out family fare that everybody asks for the whole time. Yet
very few people go and watch.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes. I think that's a point. Robert Lichter, let me
ask you this. You mentioned in the study the effective ratings and there
are ratings on television and in film. Are they effective? Do they work?
ROBERT LICHTER: This is something that really struck me that we did
not expect to find. We just matched up our ten most violent TV shows
and ten most violent movies against the ratings. And found that a majority
of both had ratings that said these are fit for kids. The majority of
the top ten violent movies were PG-13. "Private Ryan" is an
"R" but a kid can see "Rush Hour," "Private
Marshals." And the TV shows were TV-PG. So, in theory, even if
we say, look, this is a price we pay for a free society, for a capitalist
society, in which anything there's a market for goes, there is supposed
to be a mechanism to help parents protect their kids from this stuff.
That's not working.
TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead.
E. J. DIONNE: What I wanted to say to what Mr. Wainwright said earlier
is first of all I agree with rates of lethal violence in America being
worse because of our gun laws. So, we are not arguing about gun control
here. I think what people are asking of the capitalist institutions
in Hollywood is that they exercise some corporate responsibility like
others do. There was an appeal issued earlier this year signed not only
by conservatives like Bill Bennett or Sen. Brownback, but by Jimmy Carter,
Mario Cuomo, Gerald Ford. And they said, look, we don't want censorship;
we do think we should back to some standards in the movies, it ought
to be possible to reduce the overall level of violence, especially the
level of violence at times of day on television when kids are going
to see it. It ought to be possible to ask the industry not to market
these films to people who aren't adults. I think one of our conflicts
as a country is we respect the right of adults to see whatever they
want. Yet people are also parents as well as being just simply adults
and they want to protect their kids. What we're trying to do, and I
don't think we've found it, is to find a reasonable balance that will
protect the rights of artists but also say we do have a problem in the
country and, yes, part of it is a cultural problem.
TERENCE SMITH: Rupert Wainwright, you told us today that voluntarily
you changed a scene in the film "Stigmata" even after it had
been approved and gotten its rating. Tell us about that and why you
did it. Were you feeling some pressure to do that?
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: No pressure whatsoever, actually. Not from the ratings
board not from the studio, not from anybody.
TERENCE SMITH: Or from the climate at large?
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: You know what? What I did feel was that I didn't
want the movie to be focusing on the most violent moment in the movie
and the explicit showing of that. I didn't want people to focus entirely
on that rather than the movie as a whole. It's not a very violent film
as it happens but there was one very violent incident in it. And I didn't
want that to become the only important point in the movie, so I trimmed
it down so that people could, you know, imagine it happening, rather
than see it more explicitly. And to be honest, it was a very cynical
point of view. I didn't want people, you know, attacking the film for
a totally irrelevant aspect. Coming back to the point about how individual
producers and directors and writers and actors feel in Hollywood, a
lot of them are parents. I, myself, am a parent. And I think that if
you ask them, are you interested in helping increase a higher sense
of responsibility in the arts, every single one of them would say yes,
we absolutely are. I don't think there is any resistance in Hollywood
towards an increased sense of responsibility in films and in television.
I think there is a welcoming for that.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, there may be but Robert Lichter did, you find
any of that?
ROBERT LICHTER: If the welcome mat is out, I don't see anybody crossing
over it. When we found that on all different genres, music videos, cable
TV, broadcast TV, movies and theaters, you get similar rates of serious
violence, say about one every four minutes, and a lot of that violence
is in the top ten in any category. It's clear violence has become a
commodity like widgets.
TERENCE SMITH: So violence is popular.
ROBERT LICHTER: Yeah. It's being sold as pure sensational -- I think
Mr. Wainwright is getting to something here. He excised a scene because
he had a sense of narrative and moral responsibility and gratuitous
violence means you are selling the sensation instead of advancing a
TERENCE SMITH: You were trying to say?
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: You know, I completely forgot what I was going to
say. Coming back to that, let me just ask something here. One of the
points you make when you're talking about me exercising responsibility
about narrative and graphic and "Private Ryan" is sort of
good violence and other programs are not necessarily good violence,
I personally completely agree with you about that. I'm working on a
film now that the approach to violence is similar to that of "Saving
Private Ryan." What I'm worried about is some kind of, you know,
some kind of group of big brothers who go, good violence, bad violence.
Good violence yes, bad violence no -- not because I'm worried about...
not because I think there isn't a distinction, but I'm just not sure
I want anybody telling me or other people what that is.
TERENCE SMITH: Especially anyone from the government which, let me
ask you is there a constructive role for government to play in this?
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: Yes. It smacks of Russian censorship.
TERENCE SMITH: Which, let me ask you, E.J. Dionne, I mean, is there
a constructive role for government to play in this?
E. J. DIONNE: I think there is a narrow role in terms of giving parents
some tools. I think the V-chip is a reasonable alternative to censorship.
I agree with Mr. Wainwright, I don't want censorship; I don't want the
government setting up people sitting there in Hollywood. I think V-chips
and things like that where parents have control over the television
to make sure, they might keep certain things away from kids are useful.
Mr. Wainwright, first of all good for him for cutting the scene. But
secondly what he is showing is that in fact this movement to pressure
Hollywood, it's not big brothers sort of ramming them with the hammer.
It's a lot of people in the country saying look, you guys make all this
entertainment. You guys make a lot of money out of it. You ought to
think twice about certain things you might put in the movie that may
well be gratuitous and in fact not artistically very interesting or
creative either. I think he responded to that and it suggests that there
is change happening without the big brother of government setting up
shop in Hollywood.
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: May I say something?
TERENCE SMITH: Yes.
RUPERT WAINWRIGHT: Three times, four, five times about all aspects
of violence -- personally I'm very, very strongly agree that violence
without the result of violence is basically pornography. I am shocked
and horrified by it. But I really don't want... I don't want to be the
person who decides what pornography is and what's erotic literature,
you know. So at the same time I don't want to be the person, nor do
I want anybody else telling me good violence, bad violence.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Just a few seconds left, Robert Lichter.
Isn't the ultimate weapon of the consumer, the box office? Too violent.
Don't go see it.
ROBERT LICHTER: Well, as a civilized society there have been social
prohibitions in which people don't go and those prohibitions are being
moved rapidly. The other point is it's not big brother. There is an
industry board, Jack Valenti sits on, made up of parents but these ratings
are not eliminating the violent shows from kids.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Thank you all very much. We're out of time. I appreciate it.