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Viewers Have Option To Watch Violence On Television

Column by Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate Night Editor

Prompted by recent incidents of television and film inspired violence among children, Attorney General Janet Reno has called on the entertainment industry to reduce the amount of violence depicted in films and programming for young viewers by Jan. 1. If no appreciable change in the incidence of violent acts occurs, she asked Congress to legislate anti-violence controls over the content of television programs and movies. Such controls represent a blatant act of censorship and a violation of the basic freedoms of speech and press. Reno and her compatriots propose to pass a very partial judgment against something that is constitutionally protected from censorship. It should not be the responsibility of the government to decide what is good and bad for viewers, it should be the responsibility of the viewers themselves.

Reno's actions are primarily in response to two recent, widely publicized instances of violence by youths attributed to the bad influence of the entertainment media. In the first, one teen-aged boy was killed and two others seriously injured while lying down along the centerline of a highway. The boys were imitating a scene from the Touchstone movie The Program. The accident and subsequent publicity prompted Touchstone to remove the scene from the movie, yet leaving many other violent scenes, including one in which a student purposely smashes his head through a car window.

The other incident involved a five-year old Ohio boy who set his house on fire, killing his younger sister. The boy's mother attributed his actions to the influence of the popular MTV cartoon show Beavis and Butthead. In response to criticism about the show's violence and appeal to younger viewers , MTV moved the cartoon to a later time slot, ostensibly to prevent young children from viewing it. As with the Touchstone decision to cut the part from The Program, mounting public pressure culminated with outright censorship. The same public opinion that made Beavis and Butthead popular turned around and effectively censored it. It is dangerous and foreboding that the fickle finger of public fancy should be used to decide what is offensive or dangerous and what is not. A film or book that is vulgar or horrifying to one person might be seen as beautiful art or entertainment to another. Such value judgments should be left up to each person, not formulated by the government.

It is curious that we have currently focused on television as the root of all evils. Long before the invention of television, people were committing heinous acts of violence. Following Reno's line of reasoning, should we also call for government control on such fountains of violent thought as the Bible, which contains countless instances of torture and unnatural suffering? And what about history lessons in school that discuss mass killings and ethnic persecution? Any kind of government control that seeks to expose children only to "good" events and actions is a violation of an important freedom -- the freedom to see both sides of an event, to observe both good and bad.

Proponents of regulating the content of programs and movies are placing the blame on the wrong side. Reno and other advocates of the suppression of violent programming are reprimanding the entertainment industry for what is inherently the fault of a violent and violence-loving society. Programs like America's Most Wanted and G.I. Joe and movies like Terminator 2 and Friday the 13th are popular because entertainment is market driven -- violence only sells in a violent society.

The media and entertainment reflect the ideals and mores of society, not the other way around. We should rely on entertainment only as entertainment, not for direction on how to live our lives. It is irresponsible and foolish to blame the media for the violence in our society, violence that is entirely our own fault.

I find it particularly unnerving that anti-violence controls would affect a form of entertainment that is entirely optional. We don't live in the world of George Orwell's 1984 in which the television set is permanently turned on -- the simplest control of content is the power switch or the book cover.

The simple truth is that if there isn't any violence in television or movies, there will be no television or film inspired violence. However, the way to eliminate that violence is not be censoring the content of the programs, it is by providing sensible alternatives. The easiest and most effective way to eliminate violence from children's programming is for the parents of these children to change the channel, or better yet, turn the television off completely.

There is no iron law that says children must watch 30 hours of television each week, or that they must observe 10 to 15 acts of violence on television each hour. Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and even the ubiquitous Barney provide entertainment and education without the violence in Voltron, Beavis and Butthead, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It is time we stopped faulting the entertainment industry for our own mistakes. We should not rely upon the government to regulate what we can and cannot see, we should rely on ourselves. The power to create non-violent entertainment lies with the viewer; not to censor, but to choose.