Censoring Violence in Media


One of my earliest memories involves watching a monster movie onTV. I seem to recall it involved zombies hiding in a closet andgrabbing people as they entered the room. Pretty creepy stuff and,quite honestly, I probably should not have been watching it. I’mnot sure what mom was doing at the time, but she probably shouldhave turned the TV off or found something better for me towatch.

If we are to believe some members of Congress, however, exposureto such violent images should have turned me into a madman. Buteven though I went on to watch more violent movies and programs,last time I checked, I still hadn’t harmed or killed anyone. Likemillions of other kids who grew up watching cowboy shoot-em-ups,weekend “creature features,” or just plain old cops‐​and‐​robberscrime dramas, I learned how to separate fantasy from reality. Arethere some unstable kids out there who are negatively influenced byviolent images on TV? Sure. But one wonders how big that populationreally is and whether the root cause of their problems lieselsewhere (bad homes, bad neighborhoods, or even serious mentalconditions). The academic literature is all over the place onthis question and debates still rage about correlation versuscausation when it comes to violent programming and aggressivebehavior.

Regardless, our knights in shining armor in Congress are onceagain proposing to ride to our collective rescue and sanitizetelevision “for the sake of the children.” The “for the children“mantra has quickly become the universal pretext for legislativeattempts to censor TV, radio, cable, video games and the Internet.Apparently, if you have the best interests of children in mind, youcan dispense with the First Amendment and let the government censorwhatever it pleases.

Maybe I sound like a broken record for posing this question inevery essay on censorship I pen, but I’m going to go ahead and askit again: What ever happened to personal and parentalresponsibility in this country? The responses I get generally fallinto one of two camps. One group says personal responsibility dieda slow but certain death in this country a long time ago and thatI’m just another principled but quixotic dreamer who has yet tocome to grips with the inevitability of government censorship. Thisgroup doesn’t like the sound of censorship, but is apparentlywilling to live with it, or they’ve just given up fighting the goodfight. Another group, however, openly embraces the idea of UncleSam playing the role of surrogate parent in our homes. They lamentthe fact that media is so ubiquitous in our lives today and saythey’ve largely given up trying to keep tabs on what their kidswatch or listen to.

Either way, a lot of people appear ready to raise the white flagand let government censor “for the children.” So the censorshipcrusade du jour, aimed at getting “excessive violence” out of themedia, suddenly seems like a very real possibility. The Senaterecently included a measure in a military spending bill (how’s thatfor irony!) that would ban violent video programming on broadcastTV during hours in which children might be in the audience(basically anytime before 10:00 p.m.). And 39 members of the HouseCommerce Committee recently wrote to the FCC requesting that the agencystudy what it could do about violence on television. The FCCquickly responded by announcing a new inquiry into the issue. Meanwhile, thereare still lurking threats of regulation of supposedly overlyviolent video games at both thefederal and state levels.

But while the censorship bandwagonis really rolling this year in the wake of the Janet Jacksonincident, I would hope there are a few brave souls left out therewilling to fight attempts by Beltway bureaucrats to dictate whatour families can see or hear. The fundamental problem withproposals to censor violence in media is that they will requirethat the government make myriad “eye of the beholder” decisionsabout what is “too violent” on behalf of all Americans.Choices that we should be making voluntarily for ourselves and ourchildren are suddenly choices made through the political process,with its coercive ability to silence any views or content it findsunacceptable.

Consider the ramifications of allowing a handful of folks downat the FCC to determine what constitutes “excessive violence.” Arethe bloody and occasionally gruesome scenes in CSI and ERexcessive, or is that a reasonable depiction of forensic andmedical science? Hockey games on prime‐​time TV feature lots offights, blood, and lost teeth. For decades, cartoons have offered abuffet of violent acts, and slapstick comedy of the Three Stoogesvariety features a lot of unforgivingly violent moments presentedas humor. Should regulators also censor the many combat‐​oriented video games on the market todaythat involve extremely realistic military training and war gamescenarios, some of which even rely on the consulting services offormer military officials? How about gruesome war scenes fromactual combat that any child can see on the nightly news? Whatabout the stabbing, poisoning, and other heinous acts found inShakespeare’s tragedies? And, for God’s sake (excuse the pun), whatabout all the violence in the Bible or Mel Gibson’s The Passionof the Christ?

I could go on and on, but you get the point. This all comes downto a question of who calls the shots‐​parents orgovernment‐​regarding what we are allowed to see and hear in a freesociety. This is not to say society must celebrate or even defendviolence in the media; there are plenty of movies, shows and gamesthat do contain what many parents would regard as a troublingamount of violent content for young children to witness. Parentsneed to act responsibly and exercise their private right-indeed,responsibility-to censor their children’s eyes and ears fromcertain things. It’s become increasingly evident, however, that alot of parents have just gotten lazy about carrying out thisdifficult job. While I can appreciate the hassle of constantlytrying to monitor a child’s viewing and listening habits, that’s noexcuse for throwing in the towel and calling in the government tocensor what the rest of the world has access to.

By the way, let’s not forget that we long ago opened the door togovernment censorship when we allowed them to mandate that thosesilly “V‑Chips” be installed in every TV set to supposedly help uscensor sex and violence. Have you ever met anyone who uses them? Neither have I, butmany lawmakers will use that fact as yet another reason to censormore directly. Those who were ridiculed for predicting that theV‐​Chip could lead to more far‐​reaching censorship of violence ontelevision deserve an apology.

Finally, one wonders what all this hand‐​wringing over violencemeans for cable and satellite programs and providers. This has beena watershed year in terms of congressional attempts to assertcontrol over content on pay TV, with several proposals flying to “do something“about indecency on cable. And now the Senate wants to regulateviolence on cable too, although it is willing to carve out“premium” or pay‐​per‐​view services. Thus, The Sopranosgets a pass while Nip/​Tuck and The Shield areapparently fair game for the censors. All because the Senate arguesthat “broadcast television, cable television and video programmingare uniquely pervasive presences in the lives of all Americanchildren, and (are) readily accessible to all American children.“Again, it’s all “for the children.” But is there anyone left ingovernment who will stand up for freedom, the First Amendment, andpersonal responsibility?