The nation’s capitol is brimming with ideas to curtail youth violence. The president said he didn’t want to blame anybody, but a good deal of the finger pointing has landed on those of our neighbors who make their living entertaining us.
There are two ways to respond: as defensive members of a corporation under scrutiny or as talented and creative artists who justifiably pride themselves on their social conscience. Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, took the first course. I am writing as a parent and friend to Malibu neighbors in the entertainment field to urge the second. Because I know these producers, directors, actors and writers to be parents first, I am confident they will see the wisdom in this.
Unfortunately, in responding to an inquiring Congress, Jack Valenti played technocrat, not parent. “I’m not saying that movies don’t have an impact,” he evaded. “I just don’t know what it is.” Really? Jack says he wants a new study to determine whether movies like “Scream” and “Natural Born Killers” actually have an adverse effect on young minds. No new study is needed.
Apart from the disturbing similarity between the portrayed murders in recent films and Columbine, a surgeon general’s report that three decades ago found a broad correlation between simulated and actual violence, and a host of other real-world, copy-cat killings, Jack can just ask virtually any parent — or for that matter — his financial colleagues in the industry who aren’t writing expensive, high-resolution, surround-sounded films, because no one is paying attention.
But my point is not to pick on the ever-voluble Jack Valenti, who, when I was working in the White House, once even graciously took me to the movies — a good one (“The Verdict” with Paul Newman, about a lawyer overcoming injustice and a personal addiction). Indeed, I believe Jack is absolutely right when he states that the family is the only genuine hope for addressing violent youth behavior. What is missing, I fear, is the unique role the entertainment family can play at this very moment by beginning a conversation on how to raise the overall level of quality in film and television programming without stifling self-censorship.
We know this is possible. This year’s Academy notables illustrate. “Shakespeare in Love” cleverly re-introduced the extraordinary insight of the bard to thousands who might otherwise have consigned him to a humdrum English class (although, thanks to Patricia Cairns and Jennifer Gonzalez at Malibu High, we know there is no hum drumming indulged locally). So too, “Life is Beautiful” poignantly proposed that the power of a father’s love could strive to defeat even the most brutal Nazi terror. And while one hopes foreign and military policy is not fashioned in theater mezzanines, it is not beyond reason to think that public sentiment is strongly opposed to ground war in Kosovo in part because Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” graphically reminded us what that entails.
As with Spielberg’s “Ryan,” every parent recognizes that real life isn’t always beautiful. Gangs commit random violence; fraud, discrimination and corruption occur in government and business; spousal abuse, infidelity and divorce sadly can invade even the best of families. This is part of the human condition and therefore a necessary part of well-told stories in film, song, and video. But thankfully, this is neither our aspiration nor the norm. Neither the lives of accountants nor actors, nor professors or producers, nor homemakers or heavy metal rockers are consciously directed toward, or constantly dominated by, such tragic aberration. Why then, must so much of commercial and cable television, CD, video games and movies come in this distorted form?
When television was in its infancy, they used to call that “the $64,000 question.” And it still is. Some conservative voices, who I count as friends from my Reagan days, go on and on about an abstraction called the “culture war,” and write off the entertainment industry as incapable of giving a decent, civically responsible answer. I don’t. I know the producers, directors, actors and writers of this community love their children as much as I love mine, and all of us want a world for them as free of hatred and violence as possible.
In short, an entertainment industry that is giving America the courage to remove the ubiquitous presence of cigarettes can do the same for guns. Both evils are part of a culture of death that deserves no continuing role in an industry that genuinely desires to ensure that life is beautiful.
Pepperdine University Law Professor Douglas W. Kmiec holds the Caruso Family Chair in Constitutional Law, Pepperdine University, and was a former legal constitutional counsel to Ronald Reagan.