Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown is right when she notes in her Wall Street Journal op-ed today that President Obama’s focus on new gun laws to the exclusion of concerns about violence in movies, television and video games is both hypocritical and partisan. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, the administration paid some lip service to the obvious fact that the crime might be traced back to questions about mental illness or the influence of violent entertainment. But once that was over with, the sole focus of the president and his allies has been on demonizing the National Rifle Association and trying to use the incident as an excuse to advance, even if only incrementally, the traditional liberal gun control agenda. The result is what she correctly labels a “stale debate,” since having a Democrat target the NRA is as predicable as a Republican bashing Hollywood and requires no more courage.
What Brown wants is for Obama to man up and face down an industry that is a major source of funding for his and other Democrats’ campaigns by telling Hollywood and the video game makers to start policing themselves before the government finds a way to do it for them. She points out that there is a consensus among social scientists that media violence has an impact on children and puts forward a list of suggestions, including restrictions on the amount of violence that children can see on television. But while as a parent I share her concerns about violent images, my reaction to her ideas isn’t much different from the one I felt last December when I heard NRA chief Wayne LaPierre attempt to deflect attention away from guns and onto video games after Newtown: throwing the First Amendment under the bus in a vain effort to save the Second isn’t going to do the Constitution or the country much good.
Let’s specify that Brown is right that Obama is uniquely positioned as a liberal icon to use his bully pulpit to campaign against violent entertainment. But the man whose wife presented the Best Film award at this year’s Oscars has no interest in echoing Tipper Gore or Joe Lieberman when it comes to scolding the makers of films, TV shows or video games about the numbing effect of the fake violence they profit from. If he or his glamorous wife wanted to take up this cause they might have the leverage to have some impact on the products marketed to impressionable audiences. That they prefer instead to grandstand about guns and to engage in emotional arguments about murdered children that are generally bereft of any proof that the measures would actually lower the amount of gun violence or prevent another Newtown illustrates their lack of seriousness about the subject. For all of the talk about Congress lacking the courage to stand up to the NRA, the White House’s toadying to Hollywood is every bit as, if not far more, pusillanimous.
But, like some of the president’s gun control suggestions, the fact that Brown’s suggestions about entertainment sound reasonable doesn’t make up for the fact that they lack a tangible connection to Newtown.
It is true that the Newtown murderer appears to have been as obsessed with violent video games as much as with guns. But like past disputes about the level of violence in movies and television, which were blamed for the crimes committed by outliers in past generations, to jump to the conclusion that video games make Adam Lanza kill 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut is no more responsible than blaming the act of an insane person on the legal weapon that he committed the crime with.
The point here is that for Brown and others to use Newtown as an excuse to revive concerns about violence in entertainment is no different from the cynical manner with which gun control advocates have waved the bloody shirt of the massacre to resurrect their own pet schemes to ban assault weapons or otherwise restrict ownership of firearms.
I happen to sympathize greatly with Brown’s concerns. Like virtually everyone else who pays for cable I love her proposal about stopping cable companies from bundling channels to make consumers pay for those that they have little interest in. I, for one, would be quite happy if I could be allowed to only purchase those that broadcast news and sports and let others pay for the ones that show the vast array of trashy reality shows that are a staple of basic cable which we are all obligated to buy.
More importantly, the country would be far better off and our culture less coarse if there were less violence on television and in the movies. But the responsibility for stopping our children from seeing those shows and movies or playing those games belongs to parents, not the government. And the studies Brown cites notwithstanding, I’m not convinced there is any reason to believe that Lanza killed innocents because of video games any more than I am that it happened because the popular weapon he employed to commit his crime was legal.
I have no more problems with public advocacy for less violent entertainment than I do with background checks on gun purchases. But I doubt that either will prevent another insane person from thinking about committing an atrocity or obtaining the means to carry it out if they are determined to do so.
Flawed as it is, making Hollywood the scapegoat for Newtown makes as little sense as doing the same for the equally unpopular leadership of the NRA. Conservatives should be as protective of the First Amendment rights of the former to produce objectionable material as they are of the Second Amendment rights of the members of the latter.