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Shortly after the tragedy at Columbine High School in May 1999, House Speaker Dennis Hastert appeared at a photo opportunity with a group of high school wrestlers. As two muscle-bound teenagers grappled with one another in the background, Hastert, a former wrestling coach, said one solution to school violence would be to promote “more positive activities” for students, such as wrestling. Flash forward to Sept. 13, 2000. In hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee two days after the release of the Federal Trade Commission’s Report on Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children, politicians from both sides of the aisle denounced the entertainment industry, blaming it for coarsening the culture and for contributing to increasing levels of violence among children. Sen. (and Democratic candidate for vice president) Joseph Lieberman described Columbine as “a psychic breaking point” that should serve as a warning that “the culture of carnage surrounding our children may have gone too far, and that the romanticized and sanitized visions of violence our children are being bombarded with by the media had become part of a toxic mix, turning some of them into killers.” Similarly, Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of the Republican vice presidential candidate, complained that children today have “never had a normal culture against which to balance the newer, sicker one.” Please. To borrow from Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get real?” The ongoing policy debate is not really about the extent to which kids may see advertisements for “violent” entertainment. Nor is it about scientific studies of media violence, or even about which types of influences are safer for our children. We tolerate — and even promote — youth activities that are far more dangerous and violence-inducing than media mayhem. The real debate in Washington is not about violence at all. It is about cultural aesthetics. While it may be worthwhile to ask why anybody in the world listens to Eminem, such imponderables are not amenable to political solutions. In its report, the FTC found that the motion picture, recording, and video game industries engaged in “pervasive and aggressive marketing of violent movies, music, and electronic games” to children that are rated for adults or older teens. To be sure, the report documented a number of practices that even Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti declined to defend, such as the inclusion of younger children in focus groups on R-rated films. But the FTC’s general measure of the type of advertising that constitutes “targeting” of kids is quite broad, and therefore troubling. The report generally looked at “whether advertising reached an audience of 35 percent or more under 17.” In other words, it concluded that children are being “targeted” even when a substantial majority of those in the audience are adults. Thus, the report criticized the industry for advertising during programs popular with kids, such as “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “South Park,” even though 80 percent of the viewers are 18 or older. In addition, the FTC curiously downplayed the role of parents in controlling media consumption by their children, regardless of how those products might have been marketed. Judging only by its conclusions, for example, most readers would never have guessed that the report also contained the results of a June 1999 Gallup survey that found that 99 percent of the time either the parent, or the parent and child together, choose what movie to watch; that 91 percent of the time the parent is aware of the film’s rating; and that 81 percent of the sample reported being “somewhat or very satisfied” with the rating system. The Gallup survey reported similar results, if somewhat less dramatic, for recorded music and video games. The system may not be perfect, but parents are not exactly potted plants. REPORT AND REACTION The real significance of the FTC report, though, was not its findings but the reactions it provoked. Although the FTC suggested only “possible modifications to the existing self-regulatory systems to improve their utility to parents,” Vice President Al Gore threatened to institute lawsuits for “unfair and deceptive advertising” if the respective industries failed to mend their ways within six months. And the Senate Commerce Committee voted 16-2 on September 20 to adopt an amended version of S. 876, which would prohibit the public distribution of any unrated “violent video programming” during hours when children are likely to be in the audience. The bill also would empower the FCC to ban the presentation of programming on broadcast and cable channels until late night, if it finds that electronic devices fail to block such shows. Thus, despite the FTC’s more moderate recommendations, the legacy of its report may constitute direct regulation of the media. Also lost on many members of the Senate Commerce Committee was the FTC’s less aggressive characterization of the available research on media violence. It noted that researchers generally have agreed that “exposure to violence in entertainment media alone does not cause a child to commit a violent act, and that it is not the sole, or even necessarily the most important, factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes and violence.” Observers of the Senate hearing would not have caught this nuance of the report, since various members continued to repeat the myth that research has been uniform and has demonstrated a “causal link” between exposure to violent media and violence in real life. But as noted in a recent monograph by the Media Coalition, studies that suggest a relationship between violent media content and actual violence are confined “almost exclusively [to] one minor area of research psychology” and represent a small fraction of the overall research on the causes of violence. And University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman concluded that “[t]he research demonstrates either that media violence has no effect on aggression, or if there is an effect, it is vanishingly small.” Criminologists generally do not even list media influences among the causes of violent crime. Consensus on this issue appears to exist only among grandstanding policy-makers. JUST THE FACTS Given the deficiencies of theory in this area, let’s consider a few facts: � Violent crime is at its lowest level since 1973; � The Justice Department reported last month that violent crime has declined 34 percent since 1993, and dropped 10 percent between 1998 and 1999 alone; � Violent crime committed by children and teens dropped 30 percent between 1994 and 1998, and is at its lowest level since 1987; and � School violence has declined steadily since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just going by the facts, it is evident that many of the activities promoted by Coach Hastert are far more dangerous than exposure to video games, R-rated movies, or bad lyrics. In 1997, for example, there were 14 deaths among high school and middle school football players, and 18 such fatalities in 1996. In addition, in 1996 there were more than 360,000 football-related injuries among persons under 25, according to the National Safety Council. Beyond mere statistics on injuries, it seems the win-at-all-costs culture of sports worship — more than Sen. Lieberman’s “culture of carnage” — should be cause for concern. The National Alliance for Youth Sports has noted that violent incidents are “spiraling out of control amid post-game police reports and arrest warrants.” Similarly, the National Association of Sports Officials reports “a growing trend toward players, coaches, and fans assaulting sports officials.” NASO’s president, Barry Mano, has said there are several such violent incidents each week, and the association has started offering assault insurance to cover hospital costs for referees. State high school sports associations report growing numbers of ejections from games for bad sportsmanship, including violent assaults. So where is the outrage? Why no congressional hearings or denunciations from presidential candidates? Even when deaths, injuries, and heightened levels of aggression are based on facts rather than theories, there seems to be no interest. I believe there are at least two reasons for this: First, raising questions about sports is not likely to attract many votes. Second, the debate is not really about violence, it is about controlling the culture. And that is where the First Amendment comes in. All tepid protestations to the contrary, politicians are calling for measures that would restrict our media choices. But as the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has noted, media violence is protected by the Constitution, even when it is ugly or offensive. “Any other answer leaves the government in control of all the institutions of culture, the great censor and director of which thoughts are good for us.” Robert Corn-Revere, father of four children, is a First Amendment lawyer at Washington, D.C.-based Hogan & Hartson. He represents clients in the entertainment industries, including some mentioned in the FTC report discussed above, and successfully argued United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group Inc. before the U.S. Supreme Court last term.

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