Free Speech: Déjà Viewing

Congressional hearings on TV violence are repeat offenders.


I was watching C-Span, but it could have been Monty Python's Flying Circus. Attorney General Janet Reno thought the best way to get a voluntary solution was by threatening government intervention. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he didn't like being called a censor and then asked the assembled Hollywood representatives if they thought he was one. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) suggested cutting dangerous scenes from classic films and demonstrated his familiarity with popular culture by referring to Beavis and Butt-head as Buffcoat and Beaver.

But for all the intriguing things said at the Senate hearings on TV violence, the main feeling it inspired was déjà vu. The reformers claimed the "problem" was more serious than ever and getting worse. They asserted that common sense was on their side and they downplayed, if not openly mocked, the idea that personal and parental responsibility could solve the problem (or that such responsibility may ultimately be the only real solution). And of course, they said they were extremely unwilling to have the government step in but were forced to by an irresponsible and perverse entertainment industry.

Would-be censors change their instruments now and then, but they always play the same old tune. Trouble is, the hysterical jig they whip through lends itself more to demagoguery than deliberation. A review of previous moral panics makes the TV-violence hearings seem like just another sad song.

In 1922, shaken by the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and unnerved by recently passed state censorship laws and the threat of federal action, movie moguls hired Postmaster General Will H. Hays to head a "self-regulatory" board overseeing the content of their films. In 1930, the Hays Office adopted the Production Code, written by Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord and publisher Martin Quigley. With no enforcement mechanism, however, the new code had little effect.

Then in October 1933, the Most Rev. Amleto Giovanni Cicognani declared "immoral motion pictures" were responsible for the "massacre of [the] innocence of youth." (This is a common theme in censorship movements: Children are the reason censorship is necessary, and therefore those who oppose reform lack compassion.) Cicognani's complaint struck a chord with many Catholic leaders and, by April 1934, the Legion of Decency was formed. Members signed pledges condemning "indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals" and swore not to attend "places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy." The Legion's position had an ecumenical appeal: Groups such as the B'nai B'rith, Elks, Knights of Columbus, Masons, and Odd Fellows supported it.

The Federal Council of Churches jumped on the bandwagon and, foreshadowing Reno's call for "voluntary" controls or else, warned filmmakers to mend their ways or there'd be federal legislation. Hollywood responded swiftly and, in July 1934, it hired Joseph Breen to head the newly formed Production Code Administration.

From that date on, studios submitted all screenplays to the PCA for detailed recommendations on the changes required by the code. Even optioned stories and plays generally got advisory opinions from Breen. The PCA screened all movies before release and suggested more alterations. Until a film met with Breen's approval, it could not be released.

The Production Code did more than clean up dirty movies. While it's true that nudity, even in silhouette, was forbidden, and expletives such as lousy, cripes, and nerts could not be spoken, the code also prohibited the questioning of social institutions and norms. No Hollywood picture could ridicule a religious figure or faith, and the flag could not be shown disrespectfully. The court system could never appear unjust. The sanctity of marriage and home had to be upheld, divorce could never seem positive, and adultery could never seem exciting. Kidnapped children were to be returned unharmed, and childbirth could not be presented in any detail. The existence of drug trafficking, homosexuality, miscegenation, prostitution, and venereal disease couldn't be depicted. The word abortion was not even to be spoken, and if the subject was even intimated it had to be strongly condemned. Dances with excessive body movement and stationary feet were forbidden, too.

When Broadway hits were adapted for the screen, moviegoers were "protected" from words and plots in the original stage versions. Foreign films with adult themes, seen by millions overseas without apparently hurting the moral fiber of those nations, had trouble getting exhibited in the United States. Michael Medved's favorite film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, almost wasn't made; Breen warned that the novel it was based on had enormous adaptation problems since the book actually suggested, among other things, that senators are controlled by lobbyists.

But even with the silver screen featuring films sanitized for their protection, kids seemed less moral than ever. By the late '40s, reformers discovered a new culprit leading them down the road to ruin: comic books. Child psychiatrist Frederic Wertham was convinced that juvenile delinquency was due to the baneful influence of comics. Wertham, like many who support governmental restrictions on speech to alter children's behavior, treated kids as innocent, empty vessels waiting to be filled with any negative influence that came their way.

His main evidence was that delinquents read violent comic books. He condemned not just the brutality in crime comics and the gore in horror comics but also the general influence of superhero, science fiction, western, and even educational comic books. He argued in his book Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin's lifestyle was "like a wish dream for two homosexuals living together," that Wonder Woman was a lesbian who frightened boys and created a "morbid ideal" for girls, and that "Superman undermines the authority and dignity of the ordinary man and woman."

Parents' groups organized boycotts and comic-book burnings. States and counties considered legislation against the new peril. The crowning glory of the crusade came in April 1954, when Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) called a Senate hearing on the issue. In an unwitting prologue to today's hearings on TV violence, a group of self-styled children's advocates laid out the case against the offensive material.

Wertham was the star witness for the prosecution. He claimed that comics glamorized evil and violence, even when good won in the end. Like many censors, he portrayed himself as a small voice, armed only with the truth, speaking out against a powerful industry. He stated, "I am not advocating censorship" and implied that, in fact, the comics industry was out to censor him.

William Gaines, publisher of E.C., where the greatest—and most gruesome—comics were created, spoke for the defense. He said he trusted kids and believed "nobody has ever been ruined by a comic." This line of defense didn't go over too well, and the committee questioned him at length, in tones that ranged from doubtful to contemptuous. Investigator Herbert Beaser asked, with some exasperation, "Is the sole test of what you put into your magazines whether it sells?"

Though no legislation came out of the hearings, the industry got the message. They adopted a stringent code of ethics and appointed juvenile delinquency expert Judge Charles F. Murphy as comic-book czar. Horror comics got the death penalty, and crime stories were put on probation. Any comic that didn't receive the Seal of Approval from the Comics Code Authority would not be displayed by wholesalers. (Gaines took his only remaining successful comic, Mad, and turned it into a slick-format magazine so it wouldn't be covered by the Code.)

Soon enough, comic books were squeaky clean, but juveniles were more delinquent than ever. Rock and roll, with its suggestive lyrics, provocative performers, and, perhaps most important, its growing popularity, seemed as likely a culprit as anything else. A number of anti-rock movements flourished in the late '50s, including one fronted by Mitch Miller (of Sing-Along with Mitch fame), whose music was no longer in vogue. Never greatly successful in influencing the direction of pop music, the anti-rock mentality has still shown remarkable resilience.

An especially high-profile campaign began in the spring of 1985, when Tipper Gore realized her daughter was listening to a Prince song ("Darling Nikki") containing a reference to masturbation. Shocked by such racy lyrics, Gore got together with the also outraged (over Madonna's "Like a Virgin") Susan Baker—wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker—and some other friends to found the Parents' Music Resource Center. Soon the group included eight other senators' wives (B.A. Bentsen, Penny Durenberger, Teresa Heinz, Peatsy Hollings, Georgia Packwood, Jeanne H. Simon, Nancy Thurmond, and Rosemary D. Trible) as well as wives of representatives and prominent Washington businessmen. This was one grass-roots movement that started at the top.

The PMRC stuck to the tried-and-true formula favored by would-be censors. Anecdotal evidence was used extensively to document the grave danger posed by pop music. Susan Baker linked dangerous lyrics to dangerous behaviors, such as the case of the "young man who took his life while listening to the music of AC/DC." "He was not the first," she opined. (She also claimed that songs incited rape and unwanted pregnancies.) The group made striking, if weak, analogies: Giving people the entertainment they desire is like drug dealing; "harmful" music should be treated like poison or pollution. Strained interpretation of the material at hand was common, while humor, irony, and even entertainment value went undetected. (As an indirect result of PMRC lobbying, for example, Frank Zappa's Jazz in Hell album, which was entirely instrumental, ended up with a "parental advisory" sticker.)

Armed with little sociological evidence but immense influence, the PMRC wrote to Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, expressing their displeasure. Gortikov, fearing the group's powerful Washington connections, agreed to warning labels on releases with potentially offensive words. Encouraged rather than satisfied by this response, the group made new demands: They wanted all 25,000 songs released each year rated. They wanted "D/A" ratings for drugs and alcohol, "V" for violence, "O" for occult, and "X" for explicit lyrics. They wanted all lyrics printed on the outside of the music package, and they wanted all hidden messages and "backward masking" removed.

On September 19, 1985, the Senate Commerce Committee convened hearings on rock lyrics. It was a media circus, and almost every senator involved had a chance to express official disapproval. Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) questioned the motives of industry officials, asking what sort of "contribution they want[ed] to make to society" and wondered aloud if this was "the way they want to earn a living." Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) called Frank Zappa's testimony "boorish, incredibly and insensibly insulting" and said Zappa "could manage to give the First Amendment…a bad name."

Though Chairman John Danforth (R-Mo.) claimed there was "zero chance of legislation," the music industry could be forgiven for having doubts: Sen. Don Riegle (D-Mich.) warned the RIAA to rate records "before somebody else tries to do it for you," and Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) noted he'd be interested in legislation "unless the industry cleans up its act." Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) believed "no one has the right to poison our children with these lyrics," and the always entertaining Sen. Hollings stated the music in question was "outrageous filth." "We've got to do something about it," he said, adding that he had the "best constitutional minds" checking to see if it could be outlawed.

Directly after the hearings, Tipper Gore claimed, "We don't want to restrict artistic expression," but her cause was catnip to governmental censors. Soon, many states introduced legislation, often blatantly unconstitutional, to limit or label rock music. Although the laws didn't stick, their implications remain. Today, rack jobbers like Wal-Mart and Kmart refuse to sell albums with warning stickers or other music thought dubious. Many record stores won't sell stickered albums to minors and won't openly display anything deemed too outrageous. Some chains, including Camelot, Harmony House, and Moby Disc, have simply decided not to sell music considered too hot to handle.

Whether quasi-governmental restrictions similar to the ones foisted on movies, comics, and records will be imposed on TV programming remains to be seen. Canada, seen by many as a worthy model for health-care reform, may also play an inspirational role in proposals to overhaul TV shows. The Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, recently approved a "voluntary" production code put together by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, a private industry group threatened with possible government censorship.

Among other things, the code limits the broadcasting of "violent" programming to between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., restricts "violence based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability," and decrees that, in children's programming, "violence shall only be portrayed when it is essential to the development of character and plot." (How the code will affect the broadcasting of programs and movies critical of, say, racially motivated violence is unclear.) The Washington Post reported that, "while compliance with the code is officially voluntary, the CRTC said it will make 'compliance with the code a condition of license for all privately owned television stations and networks when renewing their licenses.'"

We've seen this drama before, the one in which government officials make a group an offer they can't refuse. But unlike quality programming, nothing is gained from a second viewing. The reformers claim they're on the side of morality while their opponents only care about money. They trot out the three Gs: Whatever they don't like is glorified, glamorized, and gratuitous. They're not extremists, they say; they merely represent a sensible balancing of interests. Above all, they will never, ever admit they're censors.

Steve Kurtz is a writer living in Los Angeles.