Paging Mr. Zappa
Where’s Frank Zappa when you need him? The
last time U.S. senators took to wagging their
fingers at media executives and threatening
legal restrictions if pop culture didn’t get just a
bit less … well … popular, Zappa shook his
finger right back. He unleashed a torrent of
righteous outrage at the assembled politicos
and their busybody wives — and he even looked
cool doing it.
One of the political wives to feel Zappa’s wrath
was Tipper Gore, whose hubby, Al, is currently
laying into media executives as the Democratic
candidate for president. Along with
running-mate Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gore
threatened restrictive legislation within six
months if the entertainment industry didn’t stop
marketing violent films, recordings and
videogames to America’s youth.
Lord knows, sixteen-year-old boys need
powerful inducement to lure them away from
chick flicks at the multiplex.
Lieberman himself has been described by
Wired as being as strident as the most
right-wing Republican when it comes to calling
for restrictions on sex and violence in music,
TV, and videogames.
As Wired implied, this isn’t a purely Democratic
show by any means. Republican Sen. Sam
Brownback has done his best to make bashing
directors, musicians and software programmers
a cross-aisle affair. Earlier this year,
Brownback called a press conference to
announce a joint statement by an alphabet
soup of medical organizations claiming that
[w]ell over 1,000 studies point overwhelmingly
to a causal connection between media violence
and aggressive behavior in some children.
Touting a study of its own, the mushy middle of
the finger-wagging tag-team is occupied by the
bureaucrats of the Federal Trade Commission.
Just in time for the climax of the 2000
campaign season, they released Marketing
Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of
Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the
Motion Picture, Music Recording & Electronic
Game Industries. The hefty tome is a potboiler
of a study suggesting that (gasp!) youth culture
is in fact sold to youth.
That’s quite a line-up of would-be saviors of
America’s young innocents (if you can find
any). And Frank Zappa is no longer among us
to out-outrage the culture warriors. With no
champion, are the foes of censorship doomed?
Well, they may not be as stylish as Zappa, but
free speech still has its friends. Among them is
Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum, who turned
a curious eye to Sen. Brownback’s assertion
that medical science has found proof that kids
who play Quake are bound to run amuck in the
According to Sullum, a claim that over 1,000
studies have found a causal connection
between media violence and aggressive
behavior seems a bit peculiar, since Jonathan
Freedman, a University of Toronto psychologist
who recently completed a review of the
scientific literature, counts about 200 published
studies that have tried to measure the impact of
TV or film violence on aggression.
Aside from the senator’s odd act of
multiplication, there’s yet another problem with
his claim. Most of the studies that actually
occurred failed to show any strong tendency on
the part of shoot-’em-ups to turn kids into Ted
That should be no surprise. Free-market.net’s
own Wendy McElroy points out that the
crusade against violent games and movies can
be traced back at least three decades to 1972,
to the United States Surgeon General’s
proclamation that children become violent due
to images on television. That earlier cultural
jihad was drawn up short when the Federal
Commission on Pornography and Obscenity
failed to find any real connection between
risque entertainment and violent kids.
Taking the wayback machine further, to the
’50s, comic books were tagged as the literary
(well, sort of) gates of Hell for young
Americans. Gruesome and suggestive themes
abounded and were destined, politicians
claimed, to warp the minds of tots everywhere.
Despite the apparent failings of the Baby
Boomer generation, no firm link has ever been
found to EC Comics or Mad magazine.
But even if there were evidence that letting
teens watch TV could make them ill-tempered,
that doesn’t really suggest that the ultimate
solution lies in a Senate hearing room. After all,
look as you might, you won’t find an
unless-it-makes-the-kids-jittery exception to the
Referring to the proposed Media Violence
Labeling Act of 2000 (co-sponsored by Sen.
Lieberman), which would not only impose
labeling requirements, but also age restrictions
on the media, Ronald D. Rotunda, a professor
of Law at the University of Illinois College of
Law, suggested that the measure is on a
collision course with the Supreme Court.
Writing for the Cato Institute, Rotunda adds,
the bill’s labeling scheme is a classic prior
restraint, invalid under the First Amendment.
Recognizing the inconvenient hurdles placed in
their way by the Constitution, some legislators
prefer to target the advertising of videogames
and movies rather than the content. They may