PERSPECTIVE ON THE MEDIA : It’s the Message, Not the Medium : It’s ironic that those who think TV and movies contribute to violence think hate radio is just fine. And vice versa.

<i> Robert S. McElvaine is a history professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. </i>

The debate over hate speech that has erupted in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing can be healthy for the nation, but it highlights a noteworthy paradox. For many years, most self-styled conservatives have contended that the depiction of sex and violence on television and in movies promotes anti-social behavior. Now many people identified as liberals are saying that the preaching of hate and division, which is particularly evident on talk radio, contributes to a climate in which insane acts of violence such as the tragic bombing on April 19 are more likely to occur.

Both groups are right about the potential effects of the messages that reach us through the electronic media. What is so curious is that each side seems willing to see the problem in only one portion of the media. The conservatives who have led the charge against gratuitous violence and explicit sexual content in films, television shows and song lyrics now react with anger to the suggestion that hate-filled, right-wing radio shows might push some people to violence. For their part, many of the liberals who have long defended Hollywood’s right to present any images that sell and have generally insisted that there is no connection between those images and social pathology are now quick to detect such a connection with talk radio.

One side would have us believe that violent speech and images are dangerous if they come out of a television set but not if they are emitted by a radio. The other side tries to persuade us that such images can lead to trouble if they are issued from a radio but not if their source is a television. It is difficult to see how either side can have it both ways. Either words and images can affect behavior or they cannot.

Of course words have consequences. That there is a connection between words and actions should be beyond dispute. Companies are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to send us 30-second messages via electronic media because they know that they can affect our behavior in this way. If a 30-second commercial can sway some people to buy a product, it stands to reason that countless hours of sex and violence on television or assaultive talk on radio can influence the behavior of some viewers or listeners in other ways. Can anyone who maintains that there is a danger of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” song pushing one sort of unstable person over the edge to attack a police officer reasonably argue that something like G. Gordon Liddy’s September, 1994, radio declaration (“Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents--don’t shoot at their vests, shoot at their heads! Kill them!”) does not carry the potential of motivating another brand of demented person to assault a federal officer? On the other side, can anyone who suggests that regular listening to Rush Limbaugh’s tirades against the government can contribute to an atmosphere in which violence thrives, seriously contend that a constant diet of graphic violence in movies like “Pulp Fiction” does not do the same?


None of this is to say that reasonable political debate about the size and role of the federal government is out of place or can plausibly be linked to the tragedy in Oklahoma City. Speaker Newt Gingrich was right to be outraged at this suggestion. But it was the mirror image of Gingrich’s own monstrous suggestion at the end of last fall’s campaign: that Democrats had created a climate that led a South Carolina woman to drown her two children. That comment, like Sen. Jesse Helms’ statement that President Clinton should bring a bodyguard with him if he came to North Carolina, is clearly beyond the pale.

By themselves, words and images will not tear a society apart. But when coupled with pervasive fear and uncertainty, which seem to be plaguing large numbers of Americans who see their nation and their own prospects changing, they have the capacity to inflame passions and endanger the bonds that hold us together. And this is true whether those words and images are displayed on a movie screen or transmitted by a radio. The danger is in the messages of hatred and violence, not in which medium carries them.