Plunk the kids down in the den and turn on the tube. Hello, “WWF Smackdown,” and goodbye juvenile delinquency!
That, anyway, is the marvelously counterintuitive notion of Jib Fowles, a communications professor at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus.
The professor argues that, more than three decades of social research notwithstanding, there is little actual proof of any connection between the violent images that appear on television and the increase in violence in American society since the advent of TV. Instead, Fowles contends, the violence we see on television is good for us as a country, and particularly for impressionable adolescents.
Fowles, author of the new book “The Case for Television Violence” (Sage Publications), talked about his theory in a recent telephone interview.
“Television helps the population, placates the population and has a lot to do with our emotional well-being,” Fowles said. “Viewers use television content and, in particular, television violence, to help them manage their own emotions. So I see television’s violent content as therapeutic for the population.”
Acting Out Hostile, Aggressive Feelings
While Fowles’ taste runs to police dramas, his son, Nate, enjoys “WWF Smackdown,” a pageantry of exaggerated wrestling contests between clearly “evil” and clearly “good” combatants.
“I think that he gets to act out hostile and aggressive feelings,” said Fowles, who has written several books about television. “It’s not easy to be a 12-year-old.”
As the forces for good generally prevail on most shows, Nate is also learning that crime doesn’t pay, argues Fowles--an argument that harks back to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Admittedly, it would be difficult to find many writings bloodier than the classic Greek tragedies or Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
But not everyone sees it that way. Although some scholars find no clear correlation between violent entertainment and actual behavior, Fowles’ adversaries include the religious right and the feminist left, virtually the entire medical establishment and leading political figures from both parties.
A September 1999 study released by the Center for Media and Public Affairs that surveyed broadcast television, cable stations, music videos and films drew upon research from the National Institutes of Health, the American Psychiatric Assn. and the American Medical Assn. The report’s authors wrote: “Media violence not only increases aggression among young viewers, it breeds a callousness toward violence directed at others.”
In May, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat, and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, declared that a modest effort by television executives to limit violence on prime-time entertainment programs in recent years was insufficient.
“As you well know, frustration and anger about falling standards have been voiced for some time by millions of American parents who are fed up with the rising tide of glorified violence and increasingly explicit sexual content flooding into their homes,” McCain and Lieberman wrote to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
At a Washington conference on children and the media in late June, FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani announced her willingness to censor some violent content on television just as the agency shields children from some sexually charged material.
“As a legal and historical matter, the case for placing obscenely violent images that reach children outside the protections of the 1st Amendment is as strong as the case for excluding obscene sexual or excretory images,” Tristani said. “It means that the government should be able to regulate violent speech that reaches children, to limit it in ways that would be impermissible for fully protected speech directed at adults.”
There are, of course, significant differences in tenor and tone of TV programs, with the cartoonish mayhem of the syndicated show “VIP” offering substantially different lessons from the sober, nuanced plots of NBC’s “Law & Order.” Even Lieberman and McCain acknowledged that point.
In his new book, Fowles surveys the scholarly studies of the impact of TV violence, finding them weak and wanting. Why not tally the aggression contained in sitcom punch lines, Fowles asks, or the violence shown by “Monday Night Football”? He might have usefully cited Sigmund Freud, who once wrote that the first human laughter probably followed a murder.
Instead, Fowles quotes approvingly the words of Michael Moriarity, the mercurial and brilliant actor who portrayed Assistant Dist. Atty. Ben Stone in the first years of “Law & Order.”
“Dramatic violence is the most effective tool for telling the invisible tale of good and evil,” Moriarity said. “Violent drama has been the hallmark of every major civilization since the Greeks. It is not a disease. It is an immunization against the disease.”
But Fowles would not limit that characterization to the dramas favored by critics. “I’m very reluctant to pass judgment on other people’s choices,” he said. “It’s very important that individuals select the programs that benefit them.”