Panel Explores Entertainment-Violence Link
The deadly shootings last month at a Colorado high school have lent renewed energy to congressional efforts to scrutinize the entertainment industry's role in marketing violence to children and examine what new steps may be needed to protect young people.
The two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., before turning their guns on themselves, were said to be avid players of violent video games and to enjoy movies and music with violent content, such as songs by the controversial performer Marilyn Manson.
"For the past several years, our society seems to have become increasingly flooded with violent images," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who chaired a packed May 4 hearing held by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
During the hearing, titled "Marketing Violence to Children," Mr. Brownback expressed outrage at the violent content of certain movies, music, video games, and Internet sites. But he was cautious in calling for federal action.
"This is not a legislative hearing," he said. "Rather, we aim to gather more information on a matter of great public concern and considerable national urgency."
The Colorado incident was invoked repeatedly during the hearing, but lawmakers stressed that they believed violence in the entertainment media is only one aspect of the problem of increased youth violence.
Meanwhile, President Clinton was expected to host a White House "strategy session" this week on reducing youth violence. The gathering was to bring together representatives from the entertainment industry, government, and elsewhere.
In recent weeks, Mr. Clinton, Vice President Gore, and members of Congress have brought forward proposals to address school violence. The president late last month unveiled a package of gun-control measures, including several specifically tailored to reduce youths' access to firearms. ("Clinton, Congress Zero In on Youth Violence," May 5, 1999.)
Republican leaders recently announced plans to call a National Conference on Youth and Violence. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., have introduced a new bill that would help schools acquire security technology.
Last Friday 11 Senate Democrats called for $996 million in emergency funding to address school violence.
Most lawmakers at last week's Senate hearing urged the entertainment industry to take further voluntary steps to avoid marketing to children and to eliminate gratuitous violence from its products.
"I hope that when confronted with this evidence [that the entertainment industry markets violence to children], the movie-studio executives and the game makers and the record companies will stop this trend before it goes any further," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., who was invited to testify before the panel.
However, he and several other lawmakers said the federal government might intervene to protect children if the industry does not take action.
"None of us want to resort to regulation, but if the entertainment industry continues to move in this direction, and continues to market death and degradation to our children ... then the government will act," Mr. Lieberman said. "We are not seeking censorship, we are pleading for better citizenship."
Entertainment companies have already taken some steps to protect children. For example, the video game industry in 1994 set up a voluntary rating system for its products. But Mr. Lieberman argued that the marketing of certain violent video games and movies to young people undermines the effectiveness of such rating systems.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said he planned to offer an amendment to upcoming juvenile-justice legislation that would direct the Clinton administration to investigate the marketing of violent music and video games to children.
And Sens. Lieberman and John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the commerce committee, have introduced a joint resolution with House members calling on the surgeon general to conduct a comprehensive study of the impact of media violence on children and young adults.
But Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, cautioned against seeking a quick remedy or an easy target to blame for the Colorado shootings and other youth violence.
He said in his testimony that the key is for home, church, and school to help children develop a "moral shield" to protect them from negative influences. Mr. Valenti added that the "great majority of films" should not be lumped in with the small number that contain gratuitous violence.
Douglas Lowenstein, the president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, also sought to counter some generalizations about video games. For example, he said in written testimony, a majority of the people who most frequently play video and computer games are adults, and "ultra-violent" video games constituted only 6 percent of the U.S. entertainment-software market last year.
Senators lamented that officials from major corporations that produce violent films, music, and video games declined to attend the hearing. "It is disappointing that multibillion-dollar communication companies have no one on staff willing to communicate with us on this important issue," Mr. Brownback said.
Vol. 18, Issue 35, Pages 24-25Published in Print: May 12, 1999, as Panel Explores Entertainment-Violence Link