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Kick your foot through that screen


I don't know what kind of a parent I would be. I have lived with thousands of 17- to 21-year-olds in six university dormitories since my ordination, and have taught them, witnessed their marriages, baptized their children, and even buried some, but I don't know if I would have the patience and wisdom to raise a child in the media-money age, the Era of Entertainment -- when so many of a child's daily conscious moments are held hostage by headsets, boom boxes, Nintendo games, MTV, TV sitcoms, soap operas and rented videos watched again and again, that an adult breaking through with a quiet thought can be like Sean Connery smashing back into Alcatraz in "The Rock."

I'd want to protect my children from "the culture." I spotted on late-night television an old film where David Niven puts his foot right through his family's TV screen. There, I thought, is the man for me.

In the July 15 issue of The New Yorker, David Denby writes sensitively about his struggle to raise 13-year-old and 7-year-old sons in a Manhattan civilization where "pop has triumphed, defeating all but a few pockets of resistance, absorbing or marginalizing the older 'high' arts, humbling the schools, setting the tone for an entire society."

The danger is not, he says, merely exposure to the occasional violent or prurient image, but the acceptance of a degraded environment that "devalues everything." It is, perhaps worst of all, a capitalistic environment -- a throwaway society with the idea that everything is disposable -- where children are "shaped by the media as consumers before they've had a chance to develop their souls."

In this kind of world, what chance has a parent to shape a child in the parent's image, when the toy manufacturers, the advertising industry, the record industry and the cereal companies have gotten there first? Denby's conclusions are more modest -- and perhaps more realistic -- than David Niven's. He would steer a course between the "virtuecrats" who would enforce what he calls "William Bennett's iron moralism," and the libertarians who celebrate "freedom" at any cost: This means parents must actively engage their children in moral discussion.

Max, Denby's 13-year-old, sees Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" at a friend's house; Denby disapproves and tells him he may not see Tarantino's earlier film, "Reservoir Dogs" (the one where bank robbers cut off a hostage's ear). Yet, Max does not understand why, if he's old enough to understand the reasons for not seeing the movie, he isn't old enough to see the movie.

One of these nights, the film "Seven," in which a serial killer methodically murders victims who, in his judgment, are guilty of the Seven Deadly Sins, will show up on television, and a 12-year-old with a television in his room will watch the climax -- where the killer sends the cop, Brad Pitt, a box containing his pregnant wife's severed head in a box -- and find it "cool." We don't see the head but we get the idea. And if art can be called immoral, using this gimmick to entertain an audience of any age seems as good a candidate for immoral art as we can get.

Against this background, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole vie to present themselves as media monitors, family-value guardians who will somehow shield our young from corruption without offending the industry that corrupts them.

Dole has found a film to admire, "Independence Day" (where the heroine is a stripper and two of the several heroes are drunk) -- probably because the film's president of the United States, unlike Clinton, is a Gulf War fighter pilot who personally leads the free world's jets against the alien invasion.

Clinton convened the White House Conference -- downgraded from a "summit" because the network CEOs would not cooperate -- on Children's TV, and, on July 29, announced what has been trumpeted as a historic concession: The networks -- faced with the possibility of greater Federal Communications Commission regulation or congressional action -- have agreed to present three hours of children's educational programming "or its equivalent" a week.

As I stayed up past midnight to watch the public session of the White House meeting on C-SPAN, I squirmed as the president passed the mike to Hillary, who, in turn, called upon a series of scholars and TV executives who told us how television was good -- GOOD! -- for our children.

Bill Clinton bragged that because Chelsea had watched "Sesame Street" and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" a PBS geography program, he knew where San Marino was when he met that little country's leaders at the Olympic games.

Professor Aletha C. Huston of the University of Kansas reported that students who watched preschool educational TV programs, like "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," got better high school grades than those who did not. And Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, reported on recent Annenberg studies on the positive effects of television.

Yet a close reading of the three studies -- "The Positive Effects of Television on Social Behavior"; "The State of Children's Television: An Examination of Quantity, Quality, and Industry Beliefs"; and "Children/Parents: Television in the Home" -- gives only partial reassurance. For example, witnessing "pro-social" behavior on television had a moderate positive effect, while aggressive behavior had a stronger impact. The studies conclude that there is a good deal of high-quality programming available, but these programs are on premium cable stations or on PBS.

The low-quality shows are aimed at 6- to 11-year-old boys and are packed with violent action, which, I surmise from watching bits of "Space Strikers," "Teknoman" and "Action Man" on Sunday morning, is designed to make preadolescent males feel better about their physiques. Teknoman (like the old Billy Batson in the Captain Marvel comics) can transform himself from a scrawny kid into a Robocop-type superhero; Action Man can fall out of a spaceship and grab the wing of a jet before hitting the ground. The common theme of some of these shows -- and of a wretched Captain America film I'd watched the night before -- was that technology can miraculously transform our weak (or dead) bodies into eternal dynamos. Thank you, Victor Frankenstein.

There are, I suggest, three possible reactions to the news of this new government-networks pact.

1. Milestone! Not all that the reformers might have hoped for, but a recognition that television has great potential for educating the young at a time when we more and more despair of getting anything into their heads! Yes, we admit we have to entertain them first, in order to educate them, of course, or otherwise they won't watch, even if Mommy and Daddy say they should. And of course we have to get the advertisers on board. After all, if these shows don't make money, how can you ask the networks to carry them? So, of course, educational shows should develop tie-ins (toys and dolls they can sell, like Barney the lovable, dopey dinosaur) and promote them with commercials and wedge them into time blocks with popular shows (action cartoons?) so we hold the kids to that screen all morning or all afternoon or all night. Can't risk losing the audience, can we? In short, the networks will educate if we help them make education profitable -- and we should.

This is the position of the Clintons and the Annenberg reports and Peggy Charren, a longtime advocate for children's educational television. She said at the conference that she hoped these reforms would "glue the kids to the set."

2. This proposal is a very small step in the right direction. David Bianculli, a columnist for the New York Daily News, wrote in the July 30 issue that this may be a political victory for the Clintons but not for the kids. To give them 2 percent of the total 168-hour weekly broadcast schedule is like saying Custer won at Little Big Horn. Networks can easily weasel out of their obligation with a few afternoon "specials" without compromising their prime-time "mature" schedule. Denby, writing before the conference, supports the V-chip, which would enable parents to block R-rated shows, and the FCC's three-hour proposal; but he would also break up the Disney, Sony and Time-Warner monoliths that dictate our cultural choices.

3. "Educational" television is part of the problem. Neil Postman argues in his classic critique of TV culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that television can't educate, it can only entertain. Programs like "Sesame Street" merely reinforce the false idea that if education isn't fun, there's no obligation to learn.

I'm with him. According to various surveys, children now watch between 19.5 and 35 hours of television a week.

Consider Saturday morning, the main time in which so-called children's television is bunched. When we were kids, on Saturday morning we listened to a radio program called "Let's Pretend," with Big John and Sparky the Gremlin, and their theme song was "Teddy Bears' Picnic." But we also got up early and rode horses, ate a pancake breakfast, went to art school, practiced the piano and played football.

I know it's folly for a parent to expect children to repeat their parents' experience, but there are other things more creative than staring at a tube to do on Saturday morning.

The problem with television is not the effect of the junk on the screen, it's the time forever lost in watching it.

Forget the "three hours" of "good" television and think of better things a 10-year-old could do in that time. For example: Read Sherlock Holmes, read the Hardy Boys, read anything, run around the block, paint a picture, listen to Beethoven, make a statue out of clay, dry the dishes, help Mom cook, chop wood, paint the porch, take a walk with Dad, lift weights, write a letter, write a thank-you note, visit the local museum or art gallery, visit an old or sick person, ride a bike, paddle a canoe, take swimming lessons, clean the garage, play ball, hit a tennis ball against the wall, sit on the front steps and watch the people go by.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996