The Wall Street Journal Campbell Brown: The President Gives Hollywood a Pass on Violence

April 3rd, 2013

Campbell Brown: The President Gives Hollywood a Pass on Violence


There was something missing from President Obama’s Wednesday speech in Denver about gun violence. He focused almost exclusively on passing gun-control laws, and not at all on one of the nation’s biggest promoters of violence: the entertainment industry.

The president’s campaign against gun violence has produced a stale debate marked by lots of speeches with little achieved. A more creative chief executive would have used this moment to widen the discussion by drawing attention to the increasingly graphic violence so pervasive in television shows, movies and videogames. Mr. Obama is particularly well positioned to challenge Hollywood because of his special relationship with the media world’s elites. They might be more likely to heed criticism coming from Mr. Obama than from any other president or member of Congress.

In January, when announcing his gun-violence task force, headed by Vice President Biden, Mr. Obama paid lip service to the subject of media violence. The president’s gun-control plan, based on Mr. Biden’s recommendations, addressed the matter only by asking the Centers for Disease Control to “conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including links between videogames, media images, and violence.” He asked Congress to allocate $10 million for the research. In Washington terms, that’s a pittance.

Dr. Victor Strasberger, the leading researcher on media violence for the American Academy of Pediatrics, could tell the CDC and the president what to expect: “All our studies show portraying violence is extremely dangerous,” Dr. Strasberger recently told me. “Kids become desensitized, numb to suffering around them and aggressive.” He also says that when you add in other factors like poverty, abuse or mental illness, “you have a perfect storm. This can and does lead to violence.”

Dr. Strasberger says he was stunned that the White House seems to have little interest in the available evidence. On the subject of media violence, Mr. Biden met only with representatives of the entertainment and videogame industry and researchers who support the industry. Not a single doctor or researcher critical of media violence met with the vice president.

That’s a shame, since there is a consensus among doctors and mental-health professionals about the danger to children from exposure to the violence depicted by movies, television and videogames.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2009 policy statement said: “The evidence is now clear and convincing: media violence is one of the causal factors of real-life violence and aggression. Therefore, pediatricians and parents need to take action.” The American Medical Association’s guide for physicians says studies show “a clear link between brief exposure to violence on TV or movies and increases in aggressive and even physically violent behavior in young persons.”

In 2011, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that “hundreds of studies of the effects of TV violence on children and teenagers have found that children may become ‘immune’ or numb to the horror of violence, gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems” and “imitate the violence they observe on television.”

Several policy changes could make significant strides toward reducing young people’s exposure to violence. One obvious action would be to restrict violence on television that can be seen by young people. Right now the Federal Communications Commission has no rules regulating TV violence—the agency’s content regulations apply only to language and sexual content. The FCC itself has recognized that its inability to oversee violent content is a problem and in a 2007 report to Congress called for changing the rules.

That same report, issued when the agency was headed by Kevin Martin, also called for an end to channel “bundling” by cable and satellite companies, the practice of forcing subscribers to pay for channels they don’t watch. Parents should be allowed to choose which cable or satellite channels—sources of the most extreme content—come into their homes. Parents shouldn’t be obliged to act as the sole filters for the torrent of material, as they are today, blocking channels and password-protecting against the ever-shifting programming.

Another helpful proposal would be to institute a real movie ratings system. As anyone who has recently seen PG-13 movies knows, the level of violence in them has increased to the point of making the Motion Picture Association of America’s voluntary rating system meaningless. Like the FCC’s rules for television, MPAA ratings emphasize sex and language over violence. The result? Feature films like Vin Diesel’s “Fast Five”—which includes people being shot, blood spurting, necks being broken and horrific car crashes—receive a PG-13.

The ratings system must put equal emphasis on violence, with far tougher restrictions on what defines a PG-13 film. Perhaps Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden should have a word with their friend and former Senate pal Chris Dodd, now chairman of the MPAA.

The president has plenty of other influential friends in Hollywood. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign raised millions of dollar in direct donations from the entertainment industry, and millions more for his Super PAC, Priorities USA Action. Almost a third of the $1 million-plus donors to the president’s Super PAC were entertainment and media heavyweights including producers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In one Obama fundraiser alone, held at the home of George Clooney, the campaign brought in an estimated $15 million.

The president has been more than willing to challenge the National Rifle Association, but that is like a Republican president standing up to labor unions—not a move that risks anything with his core supporters. Mr. Obama could show some real bravery by taking on Hollywood.

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