Soul-Searching on Violence by the Industry : Hollywood: Do heavy doses of movie and TV violence affect public behavior? Complex issue has no easy answers.


As soon as the Los Angeles riots ended, members of the entertainment community were quick to respond with food and clothing drives, checks and pledges to help reconstruct burned-out buildings. Others have recorded public service announcements or appeared in an all-star video to benefit the South-Central area. A recent industry-sponsored town meeting on the crisis drew a standing-room-only crowd.

In private circles, as well as public forums, the entire industry seemed to be talking about how best to help the inner city.

But with last weekend's big-grossing release of "Lethal Weapon 3," the first in an onslaught of violence-laden summer movies scheduled to open in the coming weeks, one riot-related subject remains virtually taboo among the people who make movies and television programs: Do heavy doses of violence in movies and television programs affect public behavior?

Mention the subject to a Hollywood insider and much of the time you'll hear immediate dismissals and warnings of government censorship.

Yet no such objections were voiced in 1989 when some of the biggest names in the industry came together to create the Environmental Media Assn. to promote environmentally correct messages in movies and television. Nor was there a chorus of protest last January when industry leaders announced the formation of Hollywood Supports to combat homophobia and fear of AIDS.

Although these groups are based on a widely accepted notion within the industry--that media images influence behavior--the question of whether this principle applies to violence is usually treated as a non-starter.

"We don't believe there is a causal relationship (between violent images and real-life violence)," said Del Reisman, president of the Writers Guild of America West. "And the cure is horrendous," he added, invoking the prospect of government-imposed restrictions.

Said Barbara Dixon, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Alliance of America: "We have dealt with this issue for a long time and have looked at a number of studies. According to the First Amendment lawyers who have handled the issue for us, none of (the studies) say that motion picture violence affects the behavior of people."

"The issue is so complex, it's not appropriate to deal with this in some superficial way," said former Fox Inc. chairman Barry Diller, noting that Hollywood is often accused of taking on faddish causes. ". . . I don't think we know enough yet."

Despite the widespread skittishness on the subject, doubts about the effects of violence are by no means universal.

"It's simple, to me," said actor Wesley Snipes. "You can see how a child, after watching a violent cartoon, how that child runs over to the next child and starts to do some of the same things they just saw."

Added Snipes, who has a starring role in "Passenger 57," a film currently in post-production that contains, he said, "some serious killing": "People are going to think I'm a big hypocrite . . . (but) I think there's a disproportionate amount of films where there's excessive violence."

Social scientists do not claim that someone will commit a crime solely as a result of watching action movies or television programs. But in about 3,000 studies conducted over nearly three decades, researchers have determined that a steady diet of violent entertainment does contribute to antisocial and aggressive activity when added to other factors such as violence in the home and neighborhood.

"TV violence can cause aggressive behavior and can cultivate values favoring the use of aggression to resolve conflicts," concluded an American Psychological Assn. task force last February after a five-year study. By the APA's count, the average child witnesses 8,000 murders by the time he or she graduates from elementary school and sees more than 100,000 other acts of violence.

The association's findings echo conclusions previously reached by the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Department of Justice, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Parent-Teachers Assn.

"The general public is incredibly unaware of this research," said Marcy Kelly, the president of Mediascope, a new studio-based organization that hopes to educate the entertainment industry about the research on violence and "encourage more responsible presentation of conflict and conflict resolution."

Kelly also wants to persuade producers to show the consequences of violence. "Many young people who wind up in hospitals having been shot say they are surprised that it hurts because it doesn't hurt on television," she said.

George Gerbner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, compared the entertainment industry's position on violence to the tobacco industry's stance on smoking. "The tobacco companies say there's no evidence of any relationship between tobacco smoke and cancer," he said.

Although much of the research deals with television, Gerbner said, "you can't separate movies from television." Citing the escalating level of violence in movies, he said the 1988 "Die Hard" contained 18 murders, for example, while its 1990 sequel, "Die Hard 2," showed 264.

Kelly is modeling Mediascope, funded by a $675,000 grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York, after EMA, the industry's environmental organization, which is based on the premise that films and television programs "have a unique ability to infuse the popular culture with a particular message," according to its literature. But so far, no heavy-hitters from the entertainment world have signed on to Mediascope.

"The whole issue is very circular," Kelly said. "The writer will say, 'That's what the producer wants me to write.' The producer will say, 'That's what the network wants.' The network will say, 'That's what the advertisers want.' The advertisers will say, 'That's what the public wants.' . . . The question is, how can we break the circle?"

Attempting to break the circle and end what he has called an "arms race" in TV violence "from which none will retreat for fear of losing rating points," U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) sponsored legislation to permit the television industry to draft industrywide, voluntary standards. Simon's bill provided a three-year exemption from the antitrust laws to remove the barrier broadcasters cited as blocking any collective efforts.

Although the Simon legislation was enacted into law in December, 1990, little has happened since then, according to Simon's office. "It isn't widely known that we're halfway through this process, and it's been largely ignored by the industry," said David Carle, the senator's spokesman.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters dusted off a "statement of principles" on violence, drugs and sex that was drafted six months before the Simon bill became law. "The board believes that broadcasters will continue to earn public trust and confidence by following the same principles that have served them well for so long," the NAB stated.

While conceding that "one can't rule out that (television violence) does have an effect," Valerie Schulte, an NAB vice president, said her organization's members are not the culprits. "Network television is much less violent than other forms of media," she asserted.

Indeed, in its report, the American Psychological Assn. found that cable television programs offer more graphic violence than broadcast television. In response to the Simon bill, the cable industry has hired the Annenberg School's Gerbner to analyze the level of violence on cable-originated programming.

"When we commissioned the study, we were very careful to point out that it was up to him to investigate the perceived problem (of violence on television)," according to Peggy Laramie, spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Assn. She said the study should be completed by summer.

Even critics of television and movie violence concede that figuring out how to curb it would be a far more complex task than deciding collectively to promote environmental causes. No money is to be made from sending out anti-environmental messages, and besides, as action movie director Walter Hill notes, "It's very hard to find somebody (in the industry) in favor of cutting down Brazilian rain forests."

Patricia Duff Medavoy, founder and co-chairman of Show Coalition, an activist group drawn from the entertainment industry that held a conference on violence last November, acknowledges that "it's easier to embrace an environmental message, and it's harder to figure out how to deal with a complicated story that may involve a violent scene. I can understand that. What I can't understand is why you can't talk about it."

To others, talking about violence misses the point.

"I somehow think the notion that if you disarm Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger you can change the world in some positive way is probably a little naive," said Hill, whose 1979 "The Warriors," sparked numerous incidents of violence and whose "Alien 3" is expected to be one of this summer's hits. Another Hill film, "Looters," is being retitled for reasons of taste and was pulled from the summer release schedule.

"The real question to ask, in terms of motion pictures, is: Do they avoid social issues? The answer, on the whole, is pretty clearly yes," said Hill.

Will the recent events do anything to change that?

"These people sitting around their offices right now saying, 'This is a terrible thing that happened'-- they have a choice to make," said actor-producer Mike Farrell. "Are they willing to put their ethics where their mouths are? . . . (Movies) are either life-enhancing or life-denying. We need to make more life-enhancing pictures."

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