It’s interesting that so little of the outrage over the Aurora killings has been directed at the media. The national conversation about how this could happen and how can it be prevented from happening again has been mostly about guns. That’s in marked contrast to the aftermath of the Columbine killings 13 years ago. Perhaps it’s because broadcasting — the medium most easily regulated and most scrutinized — is not so violent anymore. Or perhaps it’s the nation’s acceptance that such shootings, whatever the reason or reasons, are now an inextricable part of our society
I went to see The Dark Knight Rises last Saturday night, enticed by the positive write ups in the Star-Ledger and New York Times and undeterred by the shooting at the Colorado premiere two nights earlier.
But during the show, I kept thinking about the shootings every time the assault rifles came out, especially when the bad guys terrorized the Gotham Stock Exchange. I felt uncomfortable watching the make-believe violence unfold, with the awful reports of the real-life violence of Aurora still fresh in my mind.
Surprisingly, the theater was just half full. I wondered if more sensitive individuals had the good sense to stay home, perhaps out of respect for those killed and wounded.
I also left the theater wondering why so little of the outrage over the Aurora killings is being directed at the media — movies, TV and video games. The national conversation about how this could happen and how can it be prevented from happening again has been mostly about guns. Google “aurora killings” to see what I mean.
Here’s the headline in the Times on its initial coverage on Saturday morning: “Gunman Kills 12 at Colorado Theater; Scores are wounded, reviving debate.” Debate about what? Five paragraphs into the story, we find out: guns.
Inside, the Times offered a sidebar on how Colorado — in the wake of the Columbine shootings in 1999 — has become a battleground over gun control efforts. An editorial, an op-ed piece and three of our letters to the editor also address the role of guns.
Another sidebar on Hollywood’s struggle for a “proper response” was more concerned about Warner Brothers’ $400 million investment in Dark Knight than about its possibility culpability for inciting violence.
That’s the way it went all week, although a few fingers were pointed at media, particularly the movies.
On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein said the tragedy wasn’t only about guns and mental health. “There is another side to this: the incredible pornographic violence that has crept into our culture in terms of the entertainment business and that has now gone global.”
But such voices were rare. During this week, I waited for the media backlash. It never came. At this point, it safe to say that media have gotten a pass.
That’s in marked contrast to the aftermath of Columbine. I was editor-in-chief of B&C at the time and we gave the cover and more than four pages to blow back against media that was led by President Clinton, the First Lady and key members of the House and Senate.
“I think TV is worse,” said Sen. John McCain. “I just think the Internet is an added layer. Video games are incredibly graphic and violent and there is a competition to see who can be the most graphic and violent.”
Added Sen. Ernest Hollings: “The recent events … serve to highlight the sad and unfortunate fact that violence in our culture is begetting violence in our youths.”
Egged on by media critics and pundits, the lawmakers pledged to launch a surgeon general’s investigation into links between media and violence, scheduled a Senate hearing and called for a national conference to explore the issue. At the FCC, Commissioner Gloria Tristani was drafted to head a task force to speed the implementation of the V-chip.
Underlying the actions was the threat of some kind of regulation of media. Hollings, who retired from the Senate in 2005, had long pushed legislation that would handle broadcast violence in the same fashion as broadcast indecency — safe harbor and all.
Alarmed by the all talk, the late Jack Valenti, then Hollywood’s man in Washington, met with Eddie Fritts of the NAB and Decker Anstrom of the NCTA to figure out how to counter those accusing movies and TV of complicity in the high school shooting. “Clearly the media and entertainment industries have some responsibility here,” conceded Anstrom.
So, what’s happened over the past 13 years? Even as the frequency of rampage killings has increased, accusations against media for instigating them seem to have decreased to hardly a peep.
Perhaps it was the V-chip. Somewhat grudgingly, the consumer electronics and TV industry have given parents a tool that allows them to weed out any shows that they violent, indecent or otherwise objectionable. Parents may realize that if their kids are still getting at the bad stuff, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Perhaps those that targeted media could never proved their case. The 2001 Surgeon General’s report on youth violence, prompted in part by Columbine, was inconclusive. Research shows “strong evidence” that media violence can increase children’s aggressive behavior in short term, the study says. “But many questions remain regarding the short- and long-term effects of media violence, especially on violent behavior. Despite considerable advances in research, it is not yet possible to describe accurately how much exposure, of what types, for how long, at what ages, for what types of children, or in what types of settings will predict violent behavior in adolescents and adults.”
Perhaps it is that broadcasting — the medium most easily regulated and most scrutinized — is not so violent anymore. There are still plenty of cop shows in primetime, but they’re more about solving crimes and prosecuting criminals. Most of the violence occurs off camera. Reality shows and sitcoms may stray over the bounds of good taste, but never into violence.
Perhaps the public has more respect for the Bill of Rights than we think. As the Second Amendment stands in the way of meaningful gun regulation, the First blocks meaningful media regulation. Nobody said freedom comes without pain.
Perhaps it’s because people really like fantasy violence. Hollywood wouldn’t conjure it up, if people didn’t want it. From what I can see, the public isn’t interested in outlawing or even regulating it. My half-filled theater seems to have been the exception. It turns out the shooting hardly put a dent in the ticket sales for Dark Knight. They are still lining up.
Or perhaps it is the nation’s acceptance that such shootings, whatever the reason or reasons, are now an inextricable part of our society, that a remedy we can all agree on cannot be found and that the only safeguard against becoming a victim is to be sure not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s getting harder to do, I can tell you from personal experience. The Brady Center list of mass shootings since 2005 now has 62 entries. Among them is an incident in Pittsburgh in March. A gunman opened fire in the lobby of the Western Psychiatric hospital, killing one and wounding seven. My daughter Mary, a nursing student at Pitt, was working part-time at the hospital. But for spring break, she would have been there that day.
That’s it, I think — acceptance. For all the talk this week about gun control and other possible ways of preventing more senseless killing, it is clear seven days after the fact that the nation’s response to a mass murder of 12 people and the wounding of dozens of others will be to do nothing.
So relax, makers and distributors of assault rifles and IMAX gore. You have nothing to worry about.