Television violence revisited, media mendacities, scare tactics and the Second Amendment...


Box of Pain

David Link's article on TV violence("Facts About Fiction," Mar.) is a worthy antidote to much of what passes for informed comment. I, too, have found that, as he so aptly puts it, "when Americans all line up on one side of an issue, you know something is terribly, terribly wrong."

Although I agree with the majority of Link's contentions, I believe he errs on two points. Yes, as far as I have been able to tell, violence is presented in a moral context as wrong though necessary. Aye, there's the rub; it is presented as necessary over and over again, as the only means of solving conflict. I do not think so unrealistically as to suggest that violence is not necessary sometimes, but always, or virtually always?

The second point is that it seems just a bit naive to think that what ought to be will be: "Parents must teach their children at an early age that they are supposed to read television the same way they read a book—with care for meaning." When adults can be so uncritical in their own viewing that advertisers can predict with a high degree of accuracy how much sales will increase for so much investment in advertising, to expect these same adults as parents to teach their children critical TV viewing is rather unrealistic.

Ralph Mason Dreger
Baton Rouge, LA

David Link's defense of TV violence carefully sidesteps the reason there is such an outcry against the portrayal of violence.

The real problem with the portrayal of violence is that it creates more violence. By seeing violence, we become used to seeing violence. We have become so used to it that it no longer seems so horrible.

Psychologists tell us that the average viewer does not reason beyond about the teenage level. He does not seem able to distinguish right from wrong, especially when he sees a constant flow of what to him is the normal TV fare.

Because we see violence does not make it right. Neither does it justify creating more violence, fictional or otherwise. The appetite for sensationalism has been stimulated beyond anything imagined even 40 or 50 years ago. Censorship or not, something should be done to stop the senseless violence on TV.

Kenneth Noel
Madison, AL

Mr. Link replies: If violence on TV were presented always or even "virtually" always as the only solution to life's problems, Mr. Dreger would have a valid point. But even the most casual examination of Neilsen's top 10 or 20 (the shows people who watch TV watch the most) demonstrates that this is just a strawman argument. Mr. Dreger's concern (shared by Mr. Noel) that some parents do not teach children the difference between right and wrong, and some can't make the distinction themselves, is real, and when this occurs, it's regrettable. But those people are on the dramatic fringe of life, not in its rather boring mainstream. While arguments characterizing the middle by the extreme are common these days, I don't think they're helpful, particularly not in this controversy. I agree with Mr. Noel's conclusion that something should be done—though by artists, not politicians—about the senseless violence on television. But until someone recognizes that there is such a thing as senseful violence on television, this debate will endlessly meander in these infuriating circles.

Fit to Print

I was relieved to read Paul H. Weaver's excerpt, "The Great Pretenders." As a journalism major, I hear the noble ideals of impartial reporting reiterated in my classes each semester. Objectivity, professors tell us, is the paragon of journalism, but they neglect to address the fundamental realities of human perception: Each person experiences different conditions, situations, and feelings that dictate his or her beliefs—a bias.

Philosophers and historians understand that any personal account is laced with unavoidable bias—even in the association of words—and that no pure objectivity exists. Journalism deifies objectivity while criminalizing bias as characteristic of ineffective reporting. In searching for neutrality and denying inherent partialities, the media hogtie language into a collection of words and syntax that lacks tangibility, quote sources who lack identities, and produce stories that fuel confusion instead of resolving it. Journalism so fanatical about detachment loses sight of its purpose: to relate a story for readers to judge.

Effective journalism admits rather than conceals its bias. This does not mean disregarding facts in favor of speculation but emphasizing accuracy to support controversial opinions of "news." Comparing that point of view with other assessments would create a balanced, rather than inconclusive, perspective.

This lecture won't appear in many lesson plans at major universities; students are too busy learning the Orwellian art of using many words to say nothing at all.

Peter H. Gillette
Boulder, CO

Paul Weaver's superb article on the press reminded me of a fascinating observation by the Russian diplomat Count Nicholas Ignatiev: "What is the use of lying, when truth, well distributed, serves the same purpose?"

Andrew Beichman
Hoover Institution
Stanford, CA

As a former newspaper reporter, I found myself in wholehearted agreement with Paul Weaver's analysis of the news ("The Great Pretenders," Mar.). For me, it was endlessly frustrating to author news stories without acknowledging all the unseen forces shaping them. Editors would assign reporters to cover self-consciously staged "news" events, which we then transmitted to the reader through the jargon of journalese.

I often mused that the process by which we were reporting news stories was often more interesting and informative than the story itself. I think it is a truism that the news conveyed by the media says more about the media than it does about the world. Weaver's virtuoso essay makes this point with clarity and precision.

One way to interpret Weaver's article is as a tacit endorsement of the "new" or "literary" journalism practiced by writers such as Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Their approach to the news does away with the illusion of objective journalism and unmasks the event staging of the newsmakers. It also gives the author license to depart from the political orthodoxy and bureaucratic imperatives of the large print institutions. What does Weaver think about the New Journalism?

Peter Warren
Heritage Foundation
Washington, DC

It may well be that the majority of the media cooperate with the newsmakers to create a dog and pony show to dupe the public. Paul Weaver does a respectable job of establishing this as a plausible hypothesis. However, he falls short in backing up this view with evidence. The sample articles don't directly support his point. While their style is consistent with his view, he relies on the reader to accept his assumptions about the underlying motives for that style.

The only direct evidence Weaver provides is the "Washington dinner" story. Even in this case, the reader has to accept an implicit assumption—that the correspondent's articles were based exclusively on the aide's dinner talk. Since the stories came out during "the ensuing several weeks," there was certainly time for the correspondent to corroborate what he had heard and give a fair hearing to any opposing views. Without direct knowledge, it can't be assumed that he failed to do so.

James D. Maloy
Columbia, MD

Paul Weaver seems to be implying that the news media have some sort of responsibility to interpret and color the facts of a news event to illustrate underlying motivations and biases. This is simply not true. The function of the news media is to report the facts of a story, and nothing more. It is up to the reader to read between the lines and draw his own conclusions.

Referring to the Berkeley demonstration, Mr. Weaver says that the reporter "clearly knew a lot about the manipulative aspects of the day's events" and that the motivations of the governor were "well known to the reporter." That is a misrepresentation. The reporter did not "know" for a fact what the motivations of the various parties were. He had his suppositions and theories, presumably well-founded, but they were not facts. Therefore, they were rightly excluded from the article.

It is not the place and the function of the media to theorize and infer. And while this may unfortunately make the media accomplices to the manipulative goals of the newsmakers, the alternative is much more frightening. The specter of a press which attempts to tell the public what they ought to be thinking about a news event is much more alarming than the advantage that the newsmakers take of the media. The impersonal, objective voice that the media adopt is correct.

The real crime of the media in slanting the news is not how they report on an event but what they choose to report on. The things they choose to either ignore or focus on are much more influential than the manner in which they describe them.

Brian Thomas
Mentor, OH

Mr. Weaver replies: As Mr. Warren guesses, I liked the New Journalism's deconstructionist impulse—like many who were around at the time, I'll never forget the way Tom Wolfe annihilated radical chic with the simple device of focusing on the extraordinarily delicious hors d'oeuvres and how much everyone loved them at the elegant garden party Leonard and Felicia Bernstein threw on Long Island for the Black Panthers in 1970.

In my view, however, the New Journalism had two weaknesses. One, irritating but not mortal, was the tendency to get so wrapped up in the writer's subjective responses to his reportorial experiences that the topic of the story was slighted. The other, more serious, was that the new journalists specialized in the easy stuff. They took wonderful pot shots at richly deserving targets. But, having eviscerated the liars and frauds of their day, they didn't step up to the tougher job of creating a journalism that describes what really is going on in the world.

Mr. Maloy adopts the posture of the man from Mars: Apparently he's never heard of or experienced any of the phenomena I'm writing about, and he's not going to believe a word of it until someone presents him with mathematical proof. I have two responses. The polite one is: Read my book, which is full of further evidence and reasoning; or read the letters of Messrs. Gillette and Warren above; or read Daniel Boorstin's The Image; or for that matter go out and cover a few real-life stories yourself and see if you don't start seeing what we're talking about. My other response is: The vain academicism of Mr. Maloy's letter illustrates why so much social science today is sterile and ridiculous. By Mr. Maloy's implied standard, I guess we shouldn't accept any reports of bee stings until someone can prove scientifically why bees can fly.

Mr. Thomas illustrates the box in which 20th-century journalism has become trapped. On the one hand, he wants facts. On the other, he wants news workers to exercise no discretion other than to separate facts from everything else. This is the recipe for the culture of lying. The result of this posture is not the substantial public discourse and scrupulous journalism that Mr. Thomas would like to see but the opposite—a public discourse that is a farrago of fabrications and a press mired in irresponsibility and sleaze. As I argue in my book, journalism is a contingent and uncertain exercise, like politics, like the novel. As Mr. Gillette puts it so well, the way to get the factual, balanced, scrupulous journalism Mr. Thomas prefers is not to sweep this contingency under the rug, but to deal openly and intelligently with the fact that much of what's central to the news can't be "known for a fact" in Mr. Thomas's or Mr. Maloy's sense, yet can't be ignored either.

Contrary to what Mr. Thomas says, the voice of the news story isn't "impersonal [and] objective"—it is ironically impersonal and objective. That is, it is a pretense, a pose. Actually, as I said, the journalist is telling a story of crisis and emergency response—a story that he has made up (or taken from the traditions of his craft) and at least partly imposed on the newsmaker. But he pretends he's merely listing a bunch of objective facts. However, unlike the situation that prevails in successful or responsible irony, where the author tries to make sure the reader can decode his real view or posture, the modern news story deploys its irony in a manipulative or irresponsible manner, to bamboozle the reader into thinking that he really is reading an objective report of objective facts. I fear that Mr. Thomas is among those who are still bamboozled. He's forgetting that the objectivity of the news story is ironic, not authentic.

Nuts and Guns

Thank you for the excellent article, "Tactical Tragedies" (Mar.). Jacob Sullum's insights into the scare tactics used by politicians and anti-gun activists are quite refreshing in this day and age of gun hysteria. Few people seem to realize that making it more and more difficult for honest citizens to legally purchase firearms will in no way eliminate the incidents of lone gunmen wreaking havoc.

The only true solution to the lone-gunman problem is Mr. Sullum's advice of making it easier for the honest citizen to legally carry concealed firearms. Since a policeman is not typically present to stop the lone gunman, it is up to bystanders to thwart his efforts.

Emmanuel E. Skamangas
Fredericksburg, VA

Jacob Sullum outlines the emotion-driven and unreasonable policies of the gun-control lobby. They prey on the fears of the unthinking following tragedies involving guns.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sullum's reason fails when he equates our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms with owning and operating a motor vehicle. His suggestion that gun ownership should be subject to licensing and mandatory training is akin to suggesting that a writer must first complete a course in reasoning and logic and then be licensed by the state before being allowed to exercise the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and the press. Perhaps he is getting caught up in the tactical aspects of the issue and losing sight of the big picture.

James Perry
Phoenix, AZ

Jacob Sullum's attempt to ridicule gun-control legislation was based primarily on two points: First, that such laws are an emotional response to atrocious acts. However, that ignores the fact that probably all of society's laws restricting human behavior arise in response to unacceptable acts which occur with unacceptable frequency.

Second, the article pointed out that some shootings have and will occur despite controls. But such logic would also argue against laws aimed at controlling murder, rape, and other violent behavior that will never be eliminated entirely with laws alone. It's easy for the writer to count the tragedies which occur despite the existence of laws and equally facile for him to ignore events which have been averted by having at least some controls. There are no handy statistics for crimes which never happened.

Stephen Bankhead
Watsonville, CA

Mr. Sullum replies: I share James Perry's concern about the erosion of respect for the Second Amendment. But I never suggested that "gun ownership should be subject to licensing and mandatory training." I said that if we took President Clinton's analogy to driver licensing seriously, "this would mean that you would need a license to carry a gun in public but not to own one or use it on private property." (Emphasis added.) I then outlined a liberal carry-permit policy under which anyone satisfying certain minimal requirements would have a right to a permit. Whether or not such a policy would be constitutional under the Second Amendment (arguably, it is similar to "time, place, and manner" restrictions on speech), it is a big improvement on the current situation in most jurisdictions.

It's true enough, as Stephen Bankhead notes, that emotion plays a role in many areas of public policy. That does not mean that advocates of gun control (or any policy) should be allowed to substitute emotional appeals for rational arguments. There are good reasons for laws against murder and rape, apart from our emotional reaction to particular crimes. I don't think there are similarly good reasons for gun-control laws. But the point of my article was not to make a comprehensive case against gun control. It was to discuss a political tactic that should disturb honest, rational people on both sides of this debate.

Book Keepers

It is always a pleasure for me to see citizens getting involved in library service, whether that involvement is through a school, a university, or a public library. Without the revitalization of new thoughts, new ideas, and new people, the public library will wither and die, a fate Ms. Larson seems to believe it has earned.

However, I would like to point out two concepts Ms. Larson neglected to mention. The private libraries described in her article are generally located in states where the public funding for libraries has been slashed, and where citizens do not have the opportunity to vote directly on taxes specifically for library use. Where citizens have this right, the results are overwhelming: Library operating levies and bond issues have a passage rate of 70 percent to 80 percent. This indicates to me that people are willing to tax themselves for libraries when they are certain the library is receiving the benefit.

Also, Ms. Larson's contention that private libraries are less vulnerable to censorship due to market forces is hard to fathom. Public librarians have long been known for their determination to keep minority viewpoints available in their collections. It would be considerably easier simply to remove the contentious, the controversial, and the unpopular materials from the shelves, as the "market" would dictate. That they have not done so is a tribute to public librarians' professionalism and their dedication to free inquiry.

George M. Needham
Executive Director
Public Library Association
Chicago, IL

Miss Larson replies: As an avid reader and a lifelong patron of public libraries, I do not wish to see America's libraries "wither and die," as Mr. Needham wrongly concludes. I would simply like to see libraries enjoy the benefits of private funding. As for the willingness of citizens in some communities to pay higher taxes for libraries, as Mr. Needham mentions, I see this as further evidence that libraries could thrive on private donations, as many museums do, rather than on taxes.

Finally, Mr. Needham raises the tired point of censorship in libraries not under state control. If professional librarians are hired in both public and private community libraries, wouldn't he agree that the tendency to resist censorship would be the same?