ACLU Sees Political Opportunism, Not Science, In Report Linking Pop Culture and Youth Violence

September 13, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Politics and punditry, not scientific research, is driving the supposed link between youth violence and popular culture, the American Civil Liberties Union said today, as a Senate committee convened hearings triggered by a government report on the issue.

The ACLU said that the report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is based on inconclusive and refutable data, much of which does a crude job of describing a complex and poorly understood social process, and should not form the basis of public policy or lawmaking.

“Last week, the FBI cited statistics showing that school violence is at its lowest level in years; today the FTC is citing a correlation between escalating violence in the media and youth crime,” said ACLU legislative counsel Marvin Johnson. “They can’t have it both ways.”

While the report is careful to disavow any direct cause-and-effect relationship between media imagery and acts of teen violence — because none exists — it blurs the line by pointing to a “correlation” between the two.

But as the ACLU pointed out, correlation is simply two things happening in proximity: an alarm clock ringing at 6:00 a.m. can be correlated to the sunrise but it does not cause the sun to come up each day, Johnson explained. Linking the entertainment industry and violence is misleading, he said, and plays into election-year posturing.

“As FTC Chairman Pitofsky has said, there is no cause-and-effect relationship between violent content and violent actions of teenagers,” Johnson said, “but that won’t stop politicians from exploiting the cause-and-effect relationship between popular opinion and the ballot box.”

Meanwhile, the complex societal factors that contribute to youth violence are ignored, even though the report’s expert authors have acknowledged that violent imagery in popular culture is not the primary cause of teen violence and may account for only a small percentage of the actual violence in society.

“If, according to the FTC’s experts, popular culture is responsible for only ten percent of youth violence, where is the report — and where are the Senate hearings — examining the primary factors?” Johnson asked.

Some answers can be found, he said, in a highly regarded two-year study by the government-funded National Research Council, which gave short shrift to media violence as a factor in determining actual violence in society. Among the scores of social and individual factors were poverty, access to weapons, communications skills and drug use.

Of the many factors identified in the 400-page report, “Understanding and Preventing Violence,” exposure to violent entertainment media was notably absent. The 1993 report draws on many of the same research sources as the FTC report, and includes some of the same authors.

The ACLU remains convinced that solutions to parental concerns about the effects of popular culture lie outside of the realm of government restrictions, and for that reason it continues to oppose ratings and labeling systems.

In his 1997 testimony before Congress opposing a “v-chip” for computers, ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt warned that attempts to distinguish between “excessive” or “gratuitous” violence on the one hand, and violent material presented in an instructive or morally approved way, enmeshes the government hopelessly in an unconstitutional process of policing thought and censoring ideas.

“Congress should not take the issuance of the FTC report on media and youth violence as an occasion to pass legislation restricting speech based on a false premise,” Steinhardt said.

“‘Violent material’ is a vast category, encompassing programming with historical, literary, artistic, and news value, not to mention the entertainment value of sports, war stories, and Westerns,” he added.

“In the final analysis, violence and sex are dramatic, consistent themes in human life and history and like other controversial subjects, need to be confronted and discussed rather than suppressed.”

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