Kill your TV

On two continents, American firepower knocks television programming off the air -- just in time for National TV-Turnoff Week.

Published April 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Does television cause violence? American pundits, educators and talk-show guests will continue chewing this ever-gristly question for a good while yet after the murders at Columbine High School. But it might be more instructive to put the question to 10 or so Serbian TV workers who were unfortunate enough to be in their place of employment when NATO rained kiloton after kiloton of high-yield media criticism on it last Friday.

By the logic of the attackers, of course, it is just as well that we cannot do so, since the employees' objectivity on the matter would be hopelessly compromised by the fact that they were killed. NATO justified the controversial decision by describing the broadcast facility as a biased arm of the Serbian war machine. The alliance -- which has essentially used 24-hour-cable networks as public-access channels for lengthy, well-spun press briefings for the past month -- criticized the broadcasts for giving Slobodan Milosevic an uninterrupted platform; President Clinton argued that Slobo "uses it to spew hatred and basically spread disinformation."

In other words, it's a tool of a vast Balkan conspiracy. Ah, sweet foreign policy! It may be sloppier than domestic, but give it this: You can't yet launch Tomahawks against Matt Drudge. Now to be fair, the alliance appears right that Serbian TV has functioned as a mouthpiece, restricted in its aims and in its coverage of the war. (Though now that Belgrade's Studio B has aired Vuk
dissent against the Serbian war effort, will we be
sending in the Army Corps of Engineers to boost its broadcast wattage?) But that's also beside the point. How comfortable should we be with combatants (and a notoriously media-hostile president) acting as TV critics, deciding whether broadcasters across enemy lines are fair enough to be spared a two-thumbs-down from the sky? (And really, is a bad review from a foreign aggressor going to harm or build a station's credibility among the bombing targets? Have we learned nothing from Parental Advisory labels?)

More broadly, how comfortable are journalists with the principle that warring parties can justify attacking broadcasting offices on the grounds of whether their reports are aiding the enemy, since that's pretty much how any army is going to regard opposition media, balanced or not?

Comfortable enough, apparently, at least from this distance. American journalists have been at no loss for words in dissecting the minutiae of munitions, in advocating internationalism or isolationism, but they have been little moved by the deaths of their little Slavic brethren: It was more or less left to international groups like Amnesty International to observe that targeting a civilian site violates the Geneva Convention. The Union of Cypriot Journalists called the attack a "crude violation of the fundamental principles of international law"; the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists said the attack "permanently jeopardizes all journalists as noncombatants in international conflicts." The CPJ, mind you, gets all manner of coverage when it releases reports (like last month's) on journalists killed on the job by non-Americans, but its objections went largely unnoticed, except by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post.

But you can say this much for the NATO attacks: They were the most powerful observance yet of National TV-Turnoff Week. The 5-year-old annual ritual of cranky publicity from TV-Free America began last Thursday, enlisting schools and civic organizations to usher in a Boynton cartoon paradise of healthy, humanistic pursuits. (The TVFA Web site suggests building a birdhouse and planting a garden; trashing the local McDonald's or evicting the members of one's rival ethnic group are not listed, but there's always room for improvisation.) The organization offers an organizer's kit particularly aimed at elementary schools, with their ready stock of youthful "volunteers."

The group claims millions of participants, although it has yet to show much effect on the Nielsen ratings; TVFA's director told the Washington Post, "I don't think [the Nielsens] are an accurate measure of the universe that participates in this." (The universe that doesn't watch TV to begin with, for instance.) Clearly, however, whatever impact TVFA has had, the general TV-is-bad message seems to have considerable resonance right now, from the battle of Belgrade to the playing fields of Littleton. Ironically -- despite the group's support by such anti-TV schoolmarms as Bill McKibben -- TVFA's own literature doesn't emphasize the box's soul- or mind-destroying effects. The organization says the observance is simply intended to focus on freeing time for other activities and actually seeks to "help move beyond the old discussions about program content."

But who actually wanted to move beyond those old discussions last week, when, after Columbine, there was such juicy material? In the Boston Globe, Jim Sleeper offered a relatively balanced proposal, splitting the difference. He argued for a fair-is-fair civil rights trade-off between liberals and conservatives: "Curb guns? Or curb degrading entertainment? Both." Sleeper says he doesn't advocate censorship, but rather boycotts and protests. It's worth noting, though, that such efforts, even if they don't involve airstrikes or FBI agents smashing printing presses, do generally involve calling on media to stop making "degrading entertainment" available not only to one's own kids but to everyone else's. Clearly, the implication is that simply choosing not to let the programming in your house isn't good enough.

Sleeper's argument starts off with its own best rebuttal. He perceptively notes that family-values conservatives today are taking the same approach to school violence that liberals did to urban crime -- trying to attack "root causes." Liberals are still paying for the failure of many of those efforts, and likewise will cultural conservatives left and right. Sleeper is correct that it's too simplistic to pretend broadcasting, music and movies don't affect how people think -- art is all about affecting how people think. But it's also too simplistic to pretend we can determine how any given expression will affect what and whom.

In practice, will we be able to identify and excise those precise entertainments that are Bad for the Juniors, sparing those that are Good for the Juniors? Or will we simply see more efforts to eliminate those that hurt people's feelings? Recent experience indicates the latter. Last week, episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on the WB and "Promised Land" on CBS involving youth violence were willingly pulled, not because the makers felt they were dangerous but simply because of the timing. (Sleeper, incidentally, decries "Buffy" -- a moralistic show for all its violence -- as a program on which "kids' decent impulses are derided and snuffed out every week.") If "Carmageddon" is one person's depiction of violence inappropriate for children, "Schindler's List" is another's. It's always tempting to think we can reach an enlightened consensus on what is beyond the pale, but that's a fantasy. Already, we're seeing attempts to make hay out of claims the Littleton killers were gay, and I'd just as soon not give ammo to the "No more Leopold and Loebs!" camp. Today, "Buffy"; tomorrow, "Will and Grace."

And the TV-turnoff gestures of "Buffy" and "The Promised Land" do little to help. A more principled decision would have been to air the episodes, inviting anyone who might be offended at this juncture to read a book or talk to the family. As it is, the networks have simply bolstered the case against their shows -- because if the shows are inappropriate a week after Littleton, why are they ever appropriate? -- all in the name not of principle but of PR.

Questions of taste, after all, did not keep the round-the-clock funeral coverage off the air this past week, nor the potentially dangerous live shots of the high school during the actual siege, nor the 911 call aired after the fact. And questions about the motivations behind violent programming have not kept the Pentagon from getting its self-selected, self-promotional bombing footage onto the air. We will argue interminably over whether television causes violence. But make no mistake about it, violence certainly causes television.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------