Remember the magic bullet theory? Social scientists claimed media content had a direct and measurable impact on individuals, much like the injection of a hypodermic needle. The idea has been debunked for more than 30 years, and no definitive research has emerged to substantiate it.
But that hasn't stopped politicians from scrambling to blame the media for the violent rampage at Columbine High School last year. The latest criticism comes from the White House, Hillary Clinton and Congress.
President Clinton says violence is still a problem in the lives of many teenagers and believes a unified rating system would help parents make better choices for their kids. He says the various rating systems are too confusing. "You need a dictionary to sort it all out."
Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, worries about a "pop culture filled with gratuitous sex and violence," and supports a "unified" rating system, an issue that's part of her Senate campaign.
Congress agrees. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., have introduced the "Media Violence Labeling Act of 2000," which requires a uniform labeling system for all movies, music products and video games. In addition, warning labels would be required on all violent media products, including advertising. (The bill does not apply to TV programs.)
"There is a consensus in the scientific community that exposure to violent images through the media is harmful to kids," says McCain, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.
That's news to the rest of us.
If Congress had such evidence, why did it call on the National Institutes of Health last year to conduct a study on the effect of violent music and video games on children? Why did a researcher tell the same Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing in March that research showing the impact of violent video games on America's youth was sketchy at best?
I'm all for protecting children, but when the government--not the parent--becomes the dominant force in the nursery, it's clear the First Amendment has been forgotten. Instead, it's politics as usual.
Of course, the bill is careful not to define violent media content. It amends the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act and leaves it to the entertainment industry to create a uniform rating system and place it on content deemed violent. In other words, politicians will let the very industry they assail police itself.
Still, under the McCain-Lieberman bill, any advertising for a product that contains violent media content must carry a warning that has to "appear in both visual and audio form" and "appear in visual form for at least five seconds."
Advertisers rightly question the need for a second warning label to appear in an ad if one is also required on the packaging. "How much is enough government information?" asks Hal Shoup, evp of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
There is no magic cure for the problem of violence in society. But let's start with parents teaching morality to children, not slicing and dicing the First Amendment. K