The media doesn't influence us... except when it does
Why defenders and critics of media violence get it all wrong
For anyone who teaches or writes about media, the issue of violence is hard to avoid. Both ends of the debate are represented by zealots--the censors and the free-speech absolutists. The free-speech contingent operates under two basic assumptions: first, if you express concern about media violence, you are obviously some a priori moron who sees an imaginary immediate direct causal connection between onscreen violence and the real thing. Second, since you see such a connection, it follows that you must be an advocate of censorship--you must, in other words, be the other kind of zealot, the Tipper Gores and Phyllis Schlaflys who want to suck all the pleasure out of life and turn the country into a giant, Christian nanny state.
This "censorship" vs. "free speech" debate frames the way media vio- lence is discussed even among people who should know better. Media educators can while away days debating whether media violence even affects people at all, with many contending that there's no evidence it does. This is a curious position for them to argue. The mainstream media literacy movement is predicated on the idea that media construct reality. Media influence our views on race, gender, politics, and body image--these ideas are accepted as givens. But somehow, when it comes to violence, the effects aren't "proven."
Television executives are also quick to deny the influence of media violence. Yet the entire economy of television hinges on viewers' suggestibility. When NBC sells time to Microsoft and Toyota, it does so by hawking the tube's power to move minds. (The fact that individual commercials may fail to result in purchases is immaterial here.) Media's ability to influence people is a no-brainer for the simple fact that media is everywhere and everything; it is central to American culture. To argue that people aren't influenced by media is to argue that they aren't influenced by culture, and you don't need to be Margaret Mead to know that's insane.
We may laugh at the idiots who light their heads on fire because Beavis and Butt-head did it. Or the guys who, taking a tip from Walt Disney's The Program lie down on the highway. But all of us are swayed in one way or another. The vast majority of media-induced actions don't make the AP wire because they are, well, banal.
When Fonzie brandished a library card on Happy Days library registration shot up nationwide. After a popular Budweiser campaign, people began greeting their pals, "Whassupp!" (To capitalize on the spots' popularity with children, J. C. Penney even sold "Whassup" kiddie T-shirts.) When Ally McBeal wore a certain style of pajamas, thousands of viewers asked retailers for them. It's the same thing with movies. ET and Reese's. Tom Cruise and Ray-Bans. Dirty Harry and . 44 Magnums. And it's not just companies that exploit media's influence. Many large nonprofit groups--from the NAACP to the White House drug office to the American Medical Association--hire people to lobby Hollywood for favorable coverage.
Does violence in the media influence the real world? Of course it does. Cop shows and crime reports make us scared of other people, of going out at night, of helping out strangers. That is perhaps its primary effect. But there should be no doubt that watching violence can also lead to violence. To say that it can is not to say that it does in most circumstances, with most people, in most places. Nor is it to say that violent media creates violent behavior out of nowhere.
Whether someone's violent tendencies originated with an abusive parent or with Dirty Harry is on a certain level irrelevant; the fact remains that a steady diet of media blood and guts isn't good for some people, some of the time.
To say all this is simply to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth, one
for which there is no easy solution. Censorship by righteous experts or
government officials is not the answer. Even if you ignore the serious
First Amendment issues involved, censorship schemes could at best treat
only the symptoms. The real problem with the media is not overt violence,
but an unchecked market that churns out content strictly for bucks. The
only solutions, then, are far more radical: the establishment of a truly
public broadcasting system, as opposed to the limp vessels of PBS and
NPR. Let the corporate-owned networks program whatever garbage they like.
Providing true alternatives to commercial media would give viewers more
choices. And even if a fraction of the audience watches the alternative
channels, their presence would help put things in perspective, onscreen