Opinion Editorials

May 12 1999 -

The No-Show Summit

When President Clinton convened a summit meeting on youth violence at the White House on Monday, we were disappointed to see that show business was largely a no-show. None of the chief executives of the major media conglomerates, the people who have such influence on the tastes and turns of America's teen-agers, bothered to accept the President's invitation. More regrettably, neither the executives nor the lobbyists sent in their place have had any genuine response to the growing chorus of concerns about the harmful influence of the entertainment media's romanticized and sanitized vision of violence, about its part in the toxic mix that is turning too many of our kids into killers. The President did little more than ask for their help in moderating the most harmful media messages, to which the land's most awesome communicators found many imaginative ways to say no. Maybe part of the problem is that we have not given Hollywood something to say yes to -- we haven't asked it to make specific changes, or exerted much civic pressure in support of these changes. Here, then, are a few simple, voluntary steps the media could take quickly. First, the various entertainment industries should declare a cease-fire in the marketing of ultraviolent products to children. Evidence presented last week at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing indicates that several top companies are aiming adult-rated movies and video games with high dosages of murder and mayhem at young teen-agers. This is unethical and unacceptable. Second, for the media's voluntary rating systems to be truly effective tools, they have to be consistently enforced. In spite of the movie industry's stated policy, many young teens are now having little problem getting into theaters without their parents to see violent R-rated films. For video games, there is not even a stated industry policy; most retail and rental outlets will provide kids with access to the most perverse and grotesquely violent games on the market. Businesses in both media should abide by a common-sense rule -- if it is rated for adults, don't sell it to kids. Third, the ratings themselves need to be sharpened. In the movie industry, films with very sexually explicit content are rated NC-17, meaning no children allowed at all, but few if any films with comparably graphic violence receive this rating. The Motion Picture Association of America should rectify this imbalance. Similarly, the video game industry's ratings agency, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, should reclassify gore-filled games, which are almost all rated "mature," for players 17 and up, to the more restrictive "adults only," so that the likes of Doom don't fall into the wrong hands. Fourth, if the entertainment media are serious about meaningful gun control, they should practice some of their own. Not only are many movies and video games loaded with firearms, but so are movie and video game advertisements, which often appear on television when millions of children are watching and are published in magazines widely read by young people. How about a few self-enforced standards regulating the use of guns in mass marketing? Most American families would be thrilled if the TV networks banned bullet-riddled movie promos during family viewing hours and showings of sporting events. Fifth, all of these standards and policies should be encompassed in comprehensive codes of conduct adopted by the different entertainment industries themselves. Many media sectors already have their own codes for content and marketing, but they tend to be vague or ignored or both. If they really want to help parents protect their kids, then industry leaders should commit to codes that reflect these principles and set specific standards for responsible conduct -- much as the broadcasters did from the 1950's to the 1980's with the old National Association of Broadcasters TV code. Of course, parents have the prime responsibility for children and their media diet. But the job grows more and more difficult in this digital world, and it is made even tougher by media executives who won't exercise some self-restraint in their content and marketing and who often do little to promote the resources that can help. The nation's major Internet companies recently announced a new initiative to put more filtering tools just one click away for millions of techno-illiterate parents. This plan won't child-proof the Net, but it does constitute a sign of responsible citizenship that we would encourage the older media to emulate. For example, we hope the television industry will work with us, as the President requested, to promote the V-chip and the TV ratings system to which it will be linked. By July 1, millions of new TV sets will be equipped with the V-chip's blocking technology. Yet few parents know that it is coming and few know much if anything about the meaning of the content ratings, which are published in relatively few newspapers and which the major networks do little to publicize. To prevent the V-chip from becoming the next decade's Betamax, we must do much more to inform the public about how the technology and the ratings work. This agenda is not intended to be definitive. It is simply an attempt to show that a safer, saner culture is attainable -- if we want it.