TV or Not TV?


Americans are worried about violent crime. That's a major reason Republican Richard Riordan is now mayor of Los Angeles, an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Riordan promises to make the city safer by putting 3,000 more cops on the street and beefing up citizen patrols.

On Capitol Hill, they have a different approach to fighting crime. Their answer is censorship.

In late May and early June, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution Subcommittee held two rounds of hearings on television violence. The legislative agenda was diffuse, but the message was emphatic. Said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio): "The television industry ought to recognize one thing and not forget it. They don't own the airwaves. They have a franchise, and what Congress giveth, Congress can taketh away."

And, in a litany of double-talk, we heard:

• From Sen. Paul Simon (D-III.), the committee's chair, "We face ultimately a choice between censorship and voluntary, responsible conduct."

• From Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Ohio), "We do not want to impose unnecessary rules and regulations and even perhaps violate the Constitution….The question is, What are these people prepared to do by themselves? What kinds of regulations are they willing to accept, self-imposed, so that government doesn't have to step in?"

• And from Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-III.): "The senators here seated today would not—would be the first to object to the use of censorship as a solution to television violence. However, the fact remains that a television license is a privilege, and along with that privilege comes responsibility. The TV and motion picture industries cannot dodge these responsibilities by hiding behind the First Amendment."

In other words, censor yourselves, or we'll jerk your licenses. Metzenbaum put it bluntly: "If we can't stop it any other way, then maybe we'll find a way to take back some of those TV franchises in the hands of the networks and local stations. You have until December 1 to do something."

Television violence is a centrist issue. Although the lead censors are liberal Democrats, they have allies across the political spectrum. And no wonder.

The typical intellectual thinks TV is made up of, in Meg Greenfield's words, "the vivid, colorful sight of exploding heads and strung-out guts and guys endlessly careering around shooting other guys as a matter of mindless, pointless habit. Most of this stuff has long since abandoned any pretense to what the Supreme Court once called, in the context of an obscenity ruling, 'redeeming social value.'"

That is a statement by someone who does not watch television. Outside the occasional vampire movie or rerun of Raiders of the Lost Ark, exploding heads are truly a rarity on TV, and if Greenfield has really seen "strung-out guts," she must have been watching Lifetime broadcasts meant for physicians.

Unlike Greenfield, I watch a lot of TV, including a range of police dramas: the respectable prime-time Law & Order, the trashy late-night Silk Stalkings, and the juvenile family-hour Time Trax. These shows never show gore. They always emphasize the tragedy of violence, particularly violent death. They feature highly moral protagonists. They are shot full of "redeeming social value." Indeed, for a conscious meditation on the role of a moral man in an immoral world, it is hard to top Stephen Cannell's Wiseguy series.

The social scientists and their politician friends remove dramatic violence from its moral and imaginative context. They treat heroes the same as villains and cartoon cats and mice the same as real life murderers. A recent survey finds the educational, politically correct Young Indiana Jones Chronicles the most violent—and, by implication, most dangerous—prime-time network show.

I do not pretend to be an expert on the social-science literature on television violence. But from reading often-cited studies, I have noticed a few trends.

The clinical experiments almost all depend on creating highly artificial situations, are rarely truly double-blind, and observe only small changes in behavior. The statistical studies leave out obvious variables, such as family size, the degree of parental attention, and family religious observance.

Studies are rarely duplicated; clinicians seem to redesign experiments from scratch, while statisticians rarely look at the same data twice. Survey articles include suspicious phrases such as "the association between adult criminal violence and childhood exposure to television violence approached statistical significance." (Emphasis added.) In other words, the relation wasn't meaningful. One cannot help suspecting researchers of bias.

The most interesting epidemiological study—which has turned up everywhere from JAMA to The Public Interest—is by Brandon S. Centerwall, a psychiatrist affiliated with the University of Washington. Centerwall testified before Simon's committee and is among the most prominent voices declaring that "children's exposure to television and television violence should become part of the public-health agenda."

Unfortunately, Centerwall's study proves nothing about television violence. It does not even examine the issue.

Rather, Centerwall compares homicide rates among whites in the United States and Canada before and after the introduction of television to the rate in South Africa, where television wasn't available until 1975. From 1945 to 74, he finds that the white homicide rate jumped 93 percent in the United States and 92 percent in Canada but fell by 7 percent in South Africa. From 1975 to 87, however, the white homicide rate in South Africa increased by 130 percent. Centerwall's conclusion: Children raised watching television start killing each other when they become adults.

There are problems with Centerwall's study. Aside from looking at the existence of capital punishment, for instance, he evinces very little interest in the very different criminal justice systems in the three countries and how they changed over time.

But the main problem is that Centerwall's study proves too much. It doesn't prove that violence on television causes harm. It proves that television itself causes harm.

Assuming his conclusion is correct, violent shows may have nothing to do with the shift. Television might disrupt family life in important ways, encouraging parents to pay less attention to kids or interrupting family conversations. It might undermine legal and parental authority. It might shorten attention spans and encourage instant gratification. Banning Wiseguy reruns or America's Most Wanted wouldn't affect any of these dynamics.

And even Centerwall sees the effect as a one-time shift in the distribution of aggression within the population. This means modifying television content isn't likely to make a difference. And it means that television causes harm only by affecting the small number of people who are particularly prone to violence.

That's enough for the censors. They are quite willing to sacrifice the freedom of the many to the willful violence of the few, to ban powerful works of art because some people commit evil acts. That way you don't have to make moral judgments. You can simply blame television for crime.