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The Effects of TV Violence: Who’s to Say?

Defending the television industry is a filthy job, but somebody has to do it.

Take that new law that President Bush signed encouraging the networks, independent stations and cable operators to reason together and “voluntarily” set guidelines for violence on TV. Take it and dynamite it.

Although such dealing in smoke-filled executive suites would normally violate antitrust statutes, the new legislation grants the industry a three-year exemption so that it can come up with a plan to curb TV violence: How much can be shown, when it can be shown and all of that.

It’s about time, you’re saying.

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Everyone knows that the din of TV violence long ago reached ear-splitting levels while becoming the industry’s substitute for creativity. And it goes on and on. When, for example, CBS recently announced it was aborting its new late-night news program “American Tonight” as a regular series, what did it announce as a replacement at 11:30 p.m.? Five nights a week of something called “Crime Time.” Good night, and pleasant nightmares.

As if there weren’t enough “crime time” heading 11 p.m. newscasts.

So . . . a law championing less knock-'em-down? Less shoot-'em-up? Less blood and gore? Fewer bruises and fewer bodies? It sounds like a grand idea, you say, and you’re on your feet applauding.

Actually, it’s a terrible idea.

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First of all, it’s just about impossible to set standards for violence in a reasonable manner. Oh, sure, you could ban it from the early-evening TV that is most accessible to kids. But what about newscasts that air when kids are likely to be in the vicinity? No violence there, either?

Even more basic, what is violence? A car chase? Blowing up an empty building? Two brothers wrestling in a sitcom? The Three Stooges?

And establishing that, what then? Let’s see, how about four violent acts per hour in a drama? Or if a family drama, one? Or a 10 p.m. crime drama, five? Two murders and three beatings? Or shall we just flat-out seal off the airwaves from reality by putting all of TV off-limits to violence?

And failing that, what constitutes good violence as opposed to bad violence? This season’s acclaimed PBS documentary series “The Civil War” was enveloped in an aura of violence. Was that bad? “Tour of Duty,” a former CBS series about the Vietnam War, was definitely too violent, according to the media-monitoring organization run by the Rev. Donald Wildmon in Tupelo, Miss. Should violence be eliminated from war shown on TV, or just crime?

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And what about hockey? Football? There’s no telling how many killing machines the Super Bowl has created among viewers.

Of course, no one in the industry admits that TV violence even is a problem, making industry response to the new legislation difficult to gauge.

The law’s undertone is that of a general ordering a private to volunteer. You don’t have to, but. . . .

If the industry fails to act on its own, then “we look at other options,” said Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who co-sponsored this legislation. But he isn’t specific about those options. “I don’t want to go down the path of censorship,” Simon has said.

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That’s heartening. Nevertheless, the threat of government intervention in program content--an onerous prospect--is implicit here.

It’s one thing--and quite proper--for the Federal Communications Commission to establish limits on how many minutes of commercials can run in children’s programs (as it did recently) or to insist that stations meet their obligations by regularly airing certain broad categories of programming that are in the public interest.

Yet it’s quite another thing for the government to meddle in content, which is what this law could portend. That is just too high a price to pay for pacifying the airwaves. And that it’s civil libertarian Paul Simon who stepped out of character to push hardest for this legislation, instead of Jesse Helms, makes it no more acceptable.

Not only that, but it’s based on a flawed premise.

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Echoing other voices, Simon contends that “the evidence is overwhelming that TV violence adds to violence in our society. . . .”

Yes, about as overwhelming--and firm--as jello. A myriad of studies has proved inconclusive. Except in rare cases, such as a rash of Russian roulette deaths seemingly tied to TV showings of “The Deer Hunter” in the early 1980s, there is simply no empirical evidence that TV violence in fiction or news feeds real-life violence by turning viewers into homicidal monsters.

Perhaps it desensitizes us. Or perhaps it frightens us out of proportion to any actual threat. But makes us more violent?

Like others before him, Simon may be confusing violence with aggression, which can range from shouting at the motorist who cut in front of you on the freeway to little kids sticking their tongues out at each other.

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In spite of all the protestations, the fact remains that the public has an enormous appetite for violence, whether on TV or in theaters, where a string of bloody mob movies is proliferating through the holiday season.

It’s traditional to seek a scapegoat for society’s problems rather than searching for the actual causes. But we can’t blame TV--a mere 50-year-old infant--for making the world unsafe and ungentle. It wasn’t TV that motivated God-fearing citizens to turn out in droves for public hangings in days gone by. It wasn’t TV that motivated settlers to drive American Indians from their homelands in the 19th Century. It wasn’t “The Untouchables” or “Hunter” that inspired the Nazis to slaughter their 13 million victims. Did TV create apartheid, Stalin, Idi Amin, Papa Doc, the Khmer Rouge or even Saddam Hussein?

Besides, despite an explosion of TV violence in the last decade, most of TV remains nonviolent, with many more of its programs promoting goodness than savagery. Therefore, if TV is so persuasive, if, as Simon and others claim, TV violence creates a more violent society, why doesn’t its more prevalent nonviolence make us a more nonviolent society?

Is it that our brains discriminate? Do we lap up TV’s bad influences and resist its good influences?

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Meanwhile, there’s irony in all of this.

On the one hand, you have President Bush signing legislation advocating standards for violence on TV, on the premise that exposure to too much violence is harmful to us.

On the other hand, you have President Bush readying the nation and United States forces in the Persian Gulf for the ultimate in violence--war.

If the United States does indeed go to war with Iraq, combat coverage--depending on restrictions placed on the media by the Pentagon--will probably swamp TV. But don’t watch. It could be bad for you.

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