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Challenging the media to tell the truth about violence


The shootings at Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga., the White House summit on media violence and the plethora of studies that link it to real life violence have occasioned a crisis of conscience in Hollywood.

One segment of the entertainment industry admits there is a problem. They know that polluted airwaves are just as serious a national problem as polluted skies, oceans and forests, and they acknowledge their own role in that pollution.

Another segment denies any connection and says they are simply reflecting the violence of our society. Like a whale that has been hit with a harpoon, they thrash about wildly, seeking someone else to blame: parents for their irresponsibility; the viewing public for supporting violent shows; the networks and cable companies for catering to the viewers’ basic instincts; Congress for its cowardice on gun control and its threat to First Amendment rights.

After working in this industry for 39 years as both priest and producer, I have the feeling the harpoon carries too much truth, is too well aimed and has penetrated too deeply to be shaken off. The problem is going to have to be faced and dealt with, and eventually I think the industry will responsibly rise to the challenge.

No one would maintain that TV and movies are the sole or even the primary source of violence in our society. Nor does any responsible person want government censorship or a categorical ban on all TV or movie violence. The problem is not with media violence as such but with the superficial, distorted and exploitive way that violence is so often presented. Such a portrayal desensitizes its viewers to the horrors of real life violence, arouses the aggressive and violent impulses that lie dormant in every human heart and conveys the impression that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. Worse, it implies that human life is arbitrary, hostile and cruel, that other people are the enemy, that life is warfare and only the violent survive.

For years, Hollywood reinforced racial and gender stereotypes. But then the industry was made aware of what it was doing and responded responsibly with the result that Hollywood is now a major force in demolishing stereotypes and promoting racial and sexual equality.

For decades, American television and motion pictures promoted cigarette-smoking. But then came the surgeon general’s report, and the industry again responded responsibly. As a result, anyone who now smokes in public feels like a pariah. If, as the studies contend and a subsequent surgeon general’s report states, American media is a significant cause of violence in our society, I think it could become just the opposite -- a significant contributor to the decline of violence in our homes and on our streets.

I am convinced that entertainment television and motion pictures can do this in three different ways. First, it can take us into the psyches of the initiators of violence and help us experience the fear, isolation, self-hatred, despair and cowardice that often characterize these people. Despite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, there is nothing heroic, healthy or happy about the perpetrators of violence. They are sick. Who would want to be like them?

Second, what the news clips do for the carnage in Kosovo, television and movies can do for the carnage here -- show us the horrendous effects of real life violence on its victims, their families and on its perpetrators. We seldom see the revulsion felt by even the best-intentioned authors of violence. No wonder police departments need resident psychologists.

Third, television drama can illumine the necessity -- and the rigors -- of nonviolent conflict resolution.

Does nonviolence work? Of course. Look at the civil rights movement, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, People’s Power in the Philippines. But we need not look even that far. We have seen nonviolence work again and again in our own lives. The kind word, the caring gesture transforms the potentially hostile person into a friendly one.

Does nonviolence give the writers and producers of the entertainment community the raw materials they need to create entertaining stories? Absolutely. All the elements of compelling drama are present: intense emotional conflict, sympathetic characters whom the audience can identify with and for whom they can root, high stakes jeopardy and suspense.

If nonviolence is so theatrical, why have we in the creative community been so loathe to present it? I think it is because, rightly or wrongly, we have convinced ourselves that nonviolent conflict resolution demands too much of our viewers, that it contains more truth than they are able or willing to handle.

That is the perennial temptation for Hollywood’s creative community -- to give the audience the partial truth it wants to hear rather than the whole truth it needs to hear.

We have succumbed to this temptation in the past. We cannot afford to do so in the future. With our stories, we have shattered racial and gender stereotypes. We have given smoking a bad name. I do not see why we cannot do the same with violence. Instead of contributing to the problem, we can contribute to its solution.

This can happen if we begin to trust our viewers and tell them the whole truth about violence and if our viewers in huge numbers support us in this effort.

Paulist Fr. Ellwood Kieser is head of Paulist Productions in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and the producer of the films “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999