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Her finger isn’t pointed in the usual direction

Almost everyone, it seems, blames the mass media for the increasingly violent nature of American society. And for the corruption of our children. And for our rampant materialism and consumerism. And for the increasing sexualization of our culture.

Just look at the headlines:

“Violence as Entertainment Is Destroying Our Children.”

“Today’s Crudeness, Like Our Movies, Corrupts Our Foundation.”

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“Filth Is Everywhere, in Books, Movies, TV”

“Doctors Link Kids’ Violence to Media.”

But Karen Sternheimer, a 34-year-old sociologist at USC, thinks we’ve got it all wrong.

In her newly published book “It’s Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence on Children,” Sternheimer argues that while the media are a “central force” in our society, “media culture is not the root cause of American social problems.”

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“Fears about media and children date back at least to Plato, who was concerned about the effects the classic Greek tragedies had on children,” she says.

Today, violent video games, misogynistic rap lyrics, sexually oriented advertising and local TV news shows filled with mayhem are all, Sternheimer says, unfairly seen as contributing significantly to the decline of our culture and the ruination of our children.

I think Sternheimer overstates her case. The media do deserve some blame for the pervasive violence, sexuality and consumerism in our society, especially among children. But I agree that the media are not the sole or even the primary cause of those problems, and I think she’s absolutely right when she says, “Blaming media for changes in childhood and social problems has shifted our public conversation away from addressing the real problems that impact children’s lives.”

“The most pressing crisis facing American children today is not media culture but poverty, she rightly says.

In her view, the other “big bad wolves of childhood” are family violence, child abuse and neglect, inadequate health care and the under-funding of education.

But it’s easier for politicians to blame the media than to budget the money -- and spend the political capital -- necessary to address these problems.

Sternheimer exposes the poor methodology in many studies purporting to show causal connections between, say, video games and aggressive behavior, and she adduces volumes of evidence to demonstrate that, media scare headlines notwithstanding, “Young people today are less likely to be violent, sexually active, smoke or use drugs compared with their parents” when they were young.

Arrest rates for violent offenses among those under 17 fell steadily through the 1990s. Only 13% of 12- to 17-year-olds drank alcohol in 1999, compared with 33% in 1990 -- and 50% in 1979. The teen birthrate declined 22% in the ‘90s and is now at “an all-time low.” (In 1950, the pregnancy rate for 15- to 19-year-olds was 80.6 per thousand, whereas by 1999 the rate had dropped to 49.6 per thousand.)

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Columbine connection

Many of Sternheimer’s points are as striking as they are valid -- as when she points out that for all the overheated media reaction to the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, far more children are killed by their parents than by their classmates. In that year alone, she says, 1,000 children were killed by their parents -- compared with 35 killed by their classmates.

It was “the reaction of media pundits” to Columbine that prompted Sternheimer to begin work on her book, she told me recently.

The pundits talked about what music the two killers listened to, which violent video games they played, which media images prompted them to wear trench coats -- and whether the shootings were prompted by the 1995 movie “The Basketball Diaries,” in which Leonard DiCaprio’s character is applauded by his friends when he opens fire on his classmates and teacher.

“I couldn’t understand why we kept turning to the media culture over and over as the explanation for the motivation of the two shooters,” she said.

“The news media would have us believe that kids are ticking time bombs, waiting to blow. The reality is that young people are becoming less violent.... Homicides in schools deceased during the 1990s,” she writes.

“An emphasis on media as the cause of kids’ bad behavior prevents us from asking deeper questions about the use of violence to solve problems on a national and global level ... or why boys are socialized to save face at any cost, to be tough and never vulnerable.”

Sternheimer says it is most often members of the media-savvy affluent and middle classes who blame the media for “harming children and causing social problems.” Many of these well-intentioned social critics simply don’t understand -- and therefore fear -- new trends in pop culture.

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But lower-income people “have more experience with the reality of problems like violence,” Sternheimer says, and they know the media “are not a big part of the equation in their struggles to keep their children safe in troubled communities.”

Unfortunately, in her zeal to disprove the conventional wisdom about the media, Sternheimer ignores some obvious contradictions and inconsistencies. She lists child abuse, for example, among those issues that “can seem dry and aren’t what build big ratings, so they get pushed aside for stories that are more emotion-driven.”

Really? Tell that to the priests involved in the child-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church -- and to the defendants in the McMartin preschool molestation case, among many others. Those stories received enormous media attention.

Sternheimer also passes along, apparently without having checked, an old and unproven urban rumor -- that President George W. Bush once described rapper Eminem as “the most dangerous threat to American children since polio.”

Should media take blame?

The most provocative -- and least persuasive -- argument in Sternheimer’s book is her contention that the media have a vested interest in not only accepting blame for our social ills but even volunteering for this blame.

“The news media promote media phobia,” she says. “Media conglomerates have a lot to gain by keeping us focused on the popular culture ‘problem,’ lest we decide to close some of the corporate tax loopholes to fund more social programs....

“It’s a win-win situation for the [media] corporations,” she says. “Attention is deflected away from public policy solutions [that would require more tax dollars] and onto media culture, which the 1st Amendment largely protects from regulation. While we are busy clamoring for more restraint and changes in content, there is little threat of any real change in social structure or challenge to business as usual.

“In short, the news media promote media phobia because it doesn’t threaten the bottom line. Calling for social programs to reduce inequality and poverty would.”

I’m not naive. And after 28 years of writing critically about the media, I’m no media apologist. But I think it’s preposterous to suggest that the media deliberately -- calculatingly -- give big play to stories that blame them for crime, violence, adolescent sexuality and a host of other social ills because (a) they know the government won’t restrict or censor them anyway, and (b) they would otherwise have to give big play to stories on poverty and the under-funding of education, which would automatically lead to more expensive government programs that media tax dollars would help fund.

First, I’ve met few media moguls capable of such creative calculation. Second, the media do give heavy play to poverty and education. And third, I haven’t noticed any administration in recent years paying much attention to media coverage of any major social ill.

I think Sternheimer gives the media credit for far more power than they really have -- which is ironic, of course, given that the basic thesis of her book is that everyone else gives the media credit (or, in her case, blame) for far more power than they really have.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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