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Frankenstein must be destroyed: chasing the monster of TV violence.

Here's the scene: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and a well-armed Elmer Fudd are having a stand-off in the forest. Daffy the rat-fink has just exposed Bugs' latest disguise, so Bugs takes off the costume and says, "That's right, Doc, I'm a wabbit. Would you like to shoot me now or wait until we get home?"

"Shoot him now! Shoot him now!" Daffy screams.

"You keep out of this," Bugs says. "He does not have to shoot you now."

"He does so have to shoot me now!" says Daffy. Full of wrath, he storms up to Elmer Fudd and shrieks. "And I demand that you shoot me now!"

Now, if you aren't smiling to yourself over the prospect of Daffy's beak whirling around his head like a roulette wheel, stop reading right now. This one's for a very select group: those evil degenerates (like me) who want to corrupt the unsullied youth of America by showing them violence on television.

Wolves' heads being conked with mallets in Tex Avery's Swing Shift Cinderella. Dozens of dead bodies falling from a closet in who Killed who? A sweet little kitten seemingly baked into cookies in Chuck Jones' Feed the Kitty. And best of all, Wile E. Coyote's unending odyssey of pain in Fast and Furrious and Hook, Line, and Stinker. God, I love it. The more explosions, crashes, gunshots, and defective ACME catapults there are, the better it is for the little tykes.

Shocked? Hey, I haven't even gotten to "The Three Stooges" yet.

The villagers are out hunting another monster--the Frankenstein of TV violence. Senator Paul Simon's hearings in early August 1993 provoked a fresh round of arguments in a debate that's been going on ever since the first round of violent kids' shows--"Sky King," "Captain Midnight," and "Hopalong Cassidy" --were on the air. More recently, Attorney General Janet Reno has taken a hard line on TV violence. "We're fed up with excuses," she told the Senate, arguing that "the regulation of violence is constitutionally permissible" and that, if the networks don't do it, "government should respond." Reno herself presents a fine example, given her rotisserielike tactics with the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, or her medieval record on prosecuting "satanic ritual abuse" cases in Florida. (At least she wasn't as befuddled as Senator Ernest Hollings, who kept referring to "Beavis and Butt-head" as "Buffcoat and Beaver.")

Simon claims to have become concerned with this issue because, three years ago, he turned on the TV in his hotel room and was treated to the sight of a man being hacked apart with a chainsaw. (From his description, it sounds like the notorious scene in Brian de Palma's Scarface--itself censored to avoid an X-rating--but Simon never said what network, cable, or pay-per-view channel he saw it on.) This experience prompted him to sponsor a three-year antitrust exemption for the networks, which was his way of encouraging them to voluntarily "clean house." But at the end of that period, the rates of TV violence hadn't changed enough to satisfy him, so Simon convened open hearings on the subject in 1993.

If Simon was truly concerned with the content of television programming, the first question that comes to mind is why he gave the networks an antitrust exemption in the first place. Thanks to Reagan-era deregulation, ownership of the mass media has become steadily more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. For example, the Federal Communications Commission used to have a "seven-and-seven" rule, whereby no company was allowed to own more than seven radio and Seven Television Stations. In 1984, this was revised to a "12-and-12-and-12" rule: 12 FM radio stations, 12 AM radio stations, and 12 TV stations. It's a process outlined by Ben Bagdikian in his fine book The Media Monopoly. The net result is a loss of dissident, investigative, or regional voices; a mass media that questions less; and a forum for public debate that includes only the powerful.

This process could be impeded with judicious use of antitrust laws and stricter FCC controls--a return to the "seven, and-seven" rule, perhaps. But rather than hold hearings on this subject--a far greater threat to the nation's political well-being than watching Aliens on pay-per-view-Simon gave the networks a three-year exemption from antitrust legislation.

There's a reason we should be concerned about this issue of media ownership: television influences people. That's its job. Advertisers don't spend all that money on TV commercials because they have no impact. Corporations don't dump money into PBS shows like "The McLaughlin Group" or "Firing Line" unless they are getting their point across. Somebody is buying stuff from the Home Shopping Network and keeping Rush Limbaugh's ratings up. Then, too, we all applaud such public-service initiatives as "Don't Drink and Drive" ads, and I think most of us would be appalled if Donatello of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lit up a Marlboro or chugged a fifth of Cutty Sark. So it's not unreasonable to wonder whether violent television might be encouraging violent behavior.

The debate becomes even more impassioned when we ask how children might be affected. The innocent, trusting little tykes are spending hours bathed in TV's unreal colors, and their fantasy lives are inhabited by such weirdos as Wolverine and Eek the Cat. Parents usually want their kids to grow up sharing their ideals and values, or at least to be well-behaved and obedient. Tell parents that their kids are watching "Beavis and Butt-head" in their formative years and you set off some major alarms.

There are also elitist, even snobbish, attitudes toward pop culture that help to rationalize censorship. One is that the corporate, mass-market culture of TV isn't important enough or "art" enough to deserve the same free-speech protection as James Joyce's Ulysses or William Burrough's Naked Lunch. The second is that rational, civilized human beings are supposed to be into Shakespeare and Scarlatti, not Pearl Jam and "Beavis and Butt-head." Seen in this "enlightened" way, the efforts of Paul Simon are actually for our own good. And so we define anything even remotely energetic as "violent," wail about how innocent freckle-faced children are being defiled by such fare as "NYPD Blue," and call for a Council of Certified Nice People who will decide what the rest of us get to see. A recent Mother Jones article by Carl Cannon (July/August 1993) took just this hysterical tone, citing as proof "some three thousand research studies of this issue."

Actually, there aren't 3,000 studies. In 1984, the Psychological Bulletin published an overview by Jonathan Freedman of research on the subject. Referring to the "2,500 studies" figure bandied about at the time (it's a safe bet that 10 years would inflate this figure to 3,000), Freedman writes:

The reality is more modest. The large number refers to

the complete bibliography on television. References to

television and aggression are far fewer, perhaps around

500.... The actual literature on the relation between

television violence and aggression consists of fewer than

100 independent studies, and the majority of these are

laboratory experiments. Although this is still a substantial

body of work, it is not vast, and there are only a

small number of studies dealing specifically with the

effects of television violence outside the laboratory.

The bulk of the evidence for a causal relationship between television violence and violent behavior comes from the research of Leonard Eron of the University of Illinois and Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan. Beginning in 1960, Eron and his associates began a large-scale appraisal of how aggression develops in children and whether or not it persists into adulthood. (The question of television violence was, originally, a side issue to the long-term study.) Unfortunately, when the popular press writes about Eron's work, it tends to present his methodology in the simplest of terms: Mother Jones erroneously stated that his study "followed the viewing habits of a group of children for twenty-two years" It's this sort of sloppiness, and overzealousness to prove a point, that keeps people from understanding the issues or raising substantial criticisms. Therefore, we must discuss Eron's work in some detail.

The first issue in Eron's study was how to measure aggressiveness in children. Eron's "peer-nominated index" followed a simple strategy: asking each child in a classroom questions about which kids were the main offenders in 10 different categories of classroom aggression (that is, "Who pushes or shoves children?"). The method is consistent with other scales of aggression, and its one-month test/retest reliability is 91 percent. The researchers also tested the roles of four behavioral dimensions in the development of aggression: instigation (parental rejection or lack of nurturance), reinforcement (punishment versus reward), identification (acquiring the parents' behavior and values), and sociocultural norms.

Eron's team selected the entire third-grade population of Columbia County, New York, testing 870 children and interviewing about 75 to 80 percent of their parents. Several trends became clear almost immediately. Children with less nurturing parents were more aggressive. Children who more closely identified with either parent were less aggressive. And children with low parental identification who were punished tended to be more aggressive (an observation which required revision of the behavioral model).

Ten years later, Eron and company tracked down and re-interviewed about half of the original sample. (They followed up on the subjects in 1981 as well.) Many of the subjects--now high-school seniors--demonstrated a persistence in aggression over time. Not only were the "peer-nominated" ratings roughly consistent with the third-grade ratings, but the more aggressive kids were three times as likely to have a police record by adulthood.

Eron's team also checked for the influences on aggression which they had previously noted when the subjects were eight. The persistent influences were parental identification and socio-economic variables. Some previously important influences (lack of nurturance, punishment for aggression) didn't seem to affect the subjects' behavior as much in young adulthood. Eron writes of these factors:

Their effect is short-lived and other variables are more

important in predicting later aggression. Likewise, con,

tingencies and environmental conditions can change drastically

over 10 years, and thus the earlier contingent

response becomes irrelevant.

It's at this stage that Eron mentions television as a factor:

One of the best predictors of how aggressive a young

man would be at age 19 was the violence of the television

programs he preferred when he was 8 years old.

Now, because we had longitudinal data, we could say

with more certainty, on the basis of regression analysis,

partial correlation, path analysis, and so forth, that there

indeed was a cause-and-effect relation. Continued research,

however, has indicated that the causal effect is probably

bi-directional: Aggressive children prefer violent television,

and the violence on television causes them to be more

aggressive. [italics added)

Before we address the last comment, I should make one thing clear. Eron's research is sound. The methods he used to measure aggression are used by social scientists in many other contexts. His research does not ignore such obvious factors as the parents' socioeconomic status. And, as the above summary makes clear, Eron's own work makes a strong case for the positive or negative influence of parents in the development of their children's aggressiveness.

Now let's look at this "causal effect" business. Eron's data reveals that aggressive kids who turn into aggressive adults like aggressive television. But this is a correlation; it is not proof of a causal influence. If aggressive kids liked eating strawberry ice cream more often than the class wusses did, that too would be a predictor, and one might speculate on some anger-inducing chemical in strawberries.

Of course, the relation between representational violence and its influence on real life isn't as farfetched as that. The problem lies in determining precisely the nature of that relation, as we see when we look at the laboratory studies conducted by other researchers. Usually, the protocol for these experiments involves providing groups of individuals with entertainment calibrated for violent content, and studying some aspect of behavior after exposure--response to a behavioral test, which toys the children choose to play with, and so forth. But the results of these tests have been somewhat mixed. Sometimes the results are at variance with other studies, and many have methodological problems. For example, which "violent" entertainment is chosen? Bugs Bunny and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" present action in very different contexts, and in one study, the Adam West "Batman" series was deemed nonviolent, despite those Pow! Bam! Sock! fistfights that ended every episode.

Many of the studies report that children do demonstrate higher levels of interpersonal aggression shortly after watching violent, energetic entertainment. But a 1971 study by Feshbach and Singer had boys from seven schools watch preassigned violent and nonviolent shows for six weeks. The results were not constant from school to school--and the boys watching the nonviolent shows tended to be more aggressive. Another protocol, carried out in Belgium as well as the United States, separated children into cottages at an institutional school and exposed certain groups to violent films. Higher aggression was noted in all groups after the films were viewed, but it returned to a near-baseline level after a week or so. (The children also rated the less violent films as less exciting, more boring, and sillier than the violent films--indicating that maybe kids like a little rush now and then.) Given the criticisms of the short-term-effects studies, and the alternate interpretations of the longitudinal studies, is this matter really settled?

Eron certainly thinks so. Testifying before Simon's committee in August, he declared that "the scientific debate is over" and called upon the Senate to reduce TV violence. His statement did not include any reference to such significant factors as parental identification--which, as his own research indicates, can change the way children interpret physical punishment. And even though Rowell Huesmann concurred with Eron in similar testimony before a House subcommittee, Huesmann's 1984 study of 1,500 youths in the United States, Finland, Poland, and Australia argued that, assuming a causal influence, television might be responsible for 5 percent of the violence in society. At most.

This is where I feel one has to part company with Leonard Eron. He is one of the most respected researchers in his field, and his work points to an imperative for parents in shaping and sharing their children's lives. But he has lent his considerable authority to such diversionary efforts as Paul Simon's and urged us to address, by questionable means, what only might be causing a tiny portion of real-life violence.

Some of Eron's suggestions for improving television are problematic as well. In his Senate testimony, Eron proposed restrictions on televised violence from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm which would exclude pro football, documentaries about World War II, and even concerned lawperson Janet Reno's proudest moments. Or take Eron's suggestion that, in televised drama, "perpetrators of violence should not be rewarded for violent acts." I don't know what shows Eron's been watching, but all of the cop shows I remember usually ended with the bad guys getting caught or killed. And when Eron suggests that "gratuitous violence that is not necessary to the plot should be reduced or abandoned," one has to ask just who decides that it's "not necessary"? Perhaps most troubling is Eron's closing statement:

For many years now Western European countries have

had monitoring of TV and films for violence by government

agencies and have not permitted the showing of

excess violence, especially during child viewing hours.

And I've never heard complaints by citizens of those

democratic countries that their rights have been violated.

If something doesn't give, we may have to institute some

such monitoring by government agencies here in the

U.S.A. If the industry does not police itself, then there

is left only the prospect of official censorship, distasteful

as this may be to many of us.

The most often-cited measure of just how violent TV programs are is that of George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Few of the news stories about TV violence explain how this index is compiled, the context in which Gerbner has conducted his studies, or even some criticisms that could be raised.

Gerbner's view of the media's role in society is far more nuanced than the publicity given the violence profile may indicate. He sees television as a kind of myth-structure/religion for modern society. Television dramas, situation comedies, news shows, and all the rest create a shared culture for viewers, which communicates much about social norms and relationships, about goals and means, about winners and losers." One portion of Gerbner's research involves compiling "risk ratios" in an effort to discern which minority groups--including children, the aged, and women--tend to be the victims or the aggressors in drama. This provides a picture of a pecking order within society (white males on top, no surprise there) that has remained somewhat consistent over the 20-year history of the index.

In a press release accompanying the 1993 violence index, Gerbner discusses his investigations of the long-term effects of television viewing. Heavy viewers were more likely to express feelings of living in a hostile world. Gerbner adds, violence is a demonstration of power. It shows who can get away with what against whom."

In a previous violence index compiled for cable-television programs, violence is defined as a "clear-cut and overt episode of physical violence--hurting or killing or the threat of hurting and/or killing--in any context." An earlier definition reads:

"The overt expression of physical force against self or other compelling action against one's will on pain of being hurt or killed, or actually hurting or killing." These definitions have been criticized for being too broad; they encompass episodes of physical comedy, depiction of accidents in dramas, and even violent incidents in documentaries. They also include zany cartoon violence; in fact, the indexes for Saturday-morning programming tend to be substantially higher than the indexes for prime-time programming. Gerbner argues that, since he is analyzing cultural norms and since television entertainment is a deliberately conceived expression of these norms, his definition serves the purposes of his study.

The incidents of violence (total number = R) in a given viewing period are compiled by Gerbner's staff. Some of the statistics are easy to derive, such as the percentage of programs with violence, the number of violent scenes per hour, and the actual duration of violence, in minutes per hour. The actual violence index is calculated by adding together the following stats:

%P -- the percentage of programs in which there is


2(R/P) -- twice the number of violent episodes per


2(R/H) -- twice the number of violent episodes per hour;

%V -- percentage of leading characters involved in violence,

either as victim or perpetrator; and

%K -- percentage of leading characters involved in an

actual killing, either as victim or perpetrator.

But if these are the factors used to compile the violence profile, it's difficult to see how they can provide a clear-cut mandate for the specific content of television drama. For example, two of the numbers used are averages; why are they arbitrarily doubled and then added to percentages? Also, because the numbers are determined by a definition which explicitly separates violence from dramatic context, the index says little about actual television content outside of a broad, overall gauge. One may imagine a television season of nothing but slapstick comedy with a very high violence profile.

This is why the violence profile is best understood within the context of Gerbner's wider analysis of media content. It does not lend itself to providing specific conclusions or guidelines of the sort urged by Senator Paul Simon. (It is important to note that, even though Simon observed little change in prime-time violence levels during his three-year antitrust exemption, the index for all three of those years was below the overall 20-year score.)

Finally, there's the anecdotal evidence--loudly trumpeted as such by Carl Cannon in Mother Jones--where isolated examples of entertainment-inspired violence are cited as proof of its pernicious influence. Several such examples have turned up recently. A sequence was edited out of the film The Good Son in which McCaulay Culkin drops stuff onto a highway from an overhead bridge. (As we all know, nobody ever did this before the movie came out.) The film The Program was re-edited when some kids were killed imitating the film's characters, who "proved their courage" by lying down on a highway's dividing line. Perhaps most notoriously, in October 1993 a four-year-old Ohio boy set his family's trailer on fire, killing his younger sister; the child's mother promptly blamed MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head" for setting a bad example. But a neighbor interviewed on CNN reported that the family didn't even have cable television and that the kid had a local rep as a pyromaniac months before. This particular account was not followed up by the national media, which, if there were no enticing "Beavis and Butt-head" angle, would never have mentioned this fire at a low-income trailer park to begin with.

Numerous articles about media-inspired violence have cited similar stories--killers claiming to be Freddy Kreuger, kids imitating crimes they'd seen on a cop show a few days before, and so forth. In many of these cases, it is undeniably true that the person involved took his or her inspiration to act from a dramatic presentation in the media--the obvious example being John Hinckley's fixation on the film Taxi Driver. (Needless to say, Bible-inspired crimes just don't attract the ire of Congress.) But stories of media-inspired violence are striking mainly because they're so a typical of the norm; the vast majority of people don't take a movie or a TV show as a license to kill. Ironically, it is the abnormality of these stories that ensures they'll get widespread dissemination and be remembered long after the more mundane crimes are forgotten.

Of course, there are a few crazies out there who will be unfavorably influenced by what they see on TV. But even assuming that somehow the TV show (or movie or record) shares some of the blame, how does one predict what future crazies will take for inspiration? What guidelines would ensure that people write, act, or produce something that will not upset a psychotic? Not only is this a ridiculous demand, it's insulting to the public as well. We would all be treated as potential murderers in order to gain a hypothetical 5 percent reduction in violence.

In crusades like this--where the villagers pick up their torches and go hunting after Frankenstein--people often lose sight of what they're defending. I've read reams of by statements from people who claim to know what television does to kids; but what do kids do with television? Almost none of what I've read gives kids any credit for thinking. None of these people seems to remember what being a kid is like.

When Jurassic Park was released, there was a huge debate over whether or not children should be allowed to see it. Kids like to see dinosaurs, people argued, but this movie might scare them into catatonia. There was even the suspicion that Steven Spielberg and company were being sneaky and underhanded by making a film about dinosaurs that was terrifying. These objections were actually taken seriously. But kids like dinosaurs because they're big, look really weird, and scare the hell out of everything around them. Dinosaurs kick ass. What parent would tell his or her child that dinosaurs were cute? (And how long have these "concerned parents" been lying to their kids about the most fearsome beasts ever to shake the earth?)

Along the same lines, what kid hasn't tried to gross out everyone at the dinner table by showing them his or her chewed-up food? Or tried using a magnifying glass on an ant-hill on a hot day? Or clinically inspected the first dead animal he or she ever came across? Sixty years ago, adults were terrified of Frankenstein and fainted at the premiere of King Kong. But today, Kong is regarded as a fantasy story, Godzilla can be shown without the objections of child psychologists, and there are breakfast cereals called Count Chocula and Frankenberry. Sadly, there are few adults who seem to remember how they identified more with the monsters. Who wanted to be one of those stupid villagers waving torches at Frankenstein? That's what our parents were like.

But it's not just an issue of kids liking violence, grossness, or comic-book adventure. About 90 percent of the cartoon shows I watched as a child were the mass-produced sludge of the Hanna-Barbera Studios--like "Wacky Races," "The Jetsons," and "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" I can't remember a single memorable moment from any of them. But that Bugs Bunny sequence at the beginning of this article (from Rabbit Seasoning, 1952, directed by Chuck Jones) was done from memory, and I have no doubt that it's almost verbatim.

I know that, even at the age of eight or nine, I had some rudimentary aesthetic sense about it all. There was something hip and complex about the Warner Bros. Cartoons, and some trite, insulting sameness to the Hanna-Barbera trash, although I couldn't quite understand it then. Bugs Bunny clearly wasn't made for kids according to some study on social-interaction development. Bugs Bunny was meant to make adults laugh as much as children. Kids can also enjoy entertainment ostensibly created for adults--in fact, that's often the most rewarding kind. I had no trouble digesting Jaws, James Bond, and Clint Eastwood "spaghetti westerns" in my preteen years. And I'd have no problems with showing a 10-year-old Jurassic Park, because I know how much he or she would love it.

Another example: Ralph Bakshi's brilliant "Mighty Mouse" series was canceled after the Reverend Donald Wildmon claimed it showed the mouse snorting coke. Kids don't organize mass write-in campaigns, and I hate to see them lose something wonderful just because some officious crackpot decides it was corrupting their morals. Perhaps aspartame-drenched shows like "Barney and Friends" or "Widget" (a purple, spermy little alien who can do magic) encourage children to be good citizens, but they also encourage kids to be docile and unimaginative--just the sort of "good citizens" easily manipulated by the likes of Wildmon.

I don't enjoy bad television with lots of violence, but I'd rather not lose decent shows that use violence for good reason. Shows like "Star Trek," "X-Men," or the spectacular "Batman: The Animated Series" can give kids a sense of adventure while teaching them about such qualities as courage, bravery, and heroism. Even better, a healthy and robust spirit of irreverence can be found in Bugs Bunny, "Ren and Stimpy," and "Tiny Toons." Some of these entertainments--like adventure stories and comic books of the past--can teach kids how to be really alive.

Finally, if we must have a defense against the pernicious influence of the mass media, it cannot be from the Senate's legislation or the pronouncements of social scientists. It must begin with precisely the qualities I described above--especially irreverence. One good start is Comedy Central's "Mystery Science Theater 3000," where the main characters, forced to watch horrendous movies, fight back by heckling them. Not surprisingly, children love the show, even though most of the jokes go right over their curious little heads. They recognize a kindred spirit in "MST 3000". Kids want to stick up for themselves, maybe like Batman, maybe like Bugs Bunny, or even like Beavis and Butt-head--but always against a world made by adults.

You know, adults--those doofuses with the torches, trying to burn up Frankenstein in the old mill.

Brian Siano is a writer and researcher living in Philadelphia. His column, "The Skeptical Eye," appears regularly in The Humanist. He can be contacted via E-mail at revpk[at]
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Author:Siano, Brian
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:No justice, no peace; an interview with Jerome Miller.
Next Article:Religion can also be humanistic.

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