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A Culture of Violence
September 13, 2000

This week the Federal Trade Commission released the results of a yearlong study on violence in the entertainment industry. The study, ordered by President Clinton following the Columbine tragedy, concludes that the entertainment industry actively markets restricted films, music, and video games to children. While the FTC stopped short of positing a direct correlation between media violence and actual violence, past Atlantic articles have probed the connection.

In "The Man Who Counts the Killings" (May 1997), Scott Stossel profiled George Gerbner, a passionate and longtime crusader against violence on television. "Today," Stossel writes, "someone settling down to watch television is likely to witness a veritable carnival of violent behavior." Studies by the Cultural Indicators project, a national media-research initiative to which Gerbner was appointed in 1968, have shown that "on average there are more than five violent scenes in an hour of prime time, and five murders a night.... And that's only network television." Gerbner and others fear that the consciousness of American youth is increasingly coming to be shaped by television's violent messages. "By the time children reach school age," Stossel writes, "they will have spent more hours in front of the television than they will ever spend in college classrooms."

In order to short-circuit the endless stream of television violence, Gerbner believes, the very structure of the entertainment industry must be called into question. Entertainment executives, Stossel explains,

use the First Amendment as a shield while denying it to the disenfranchised. Censorship! Censorship! broadcasters cry when anyone suggests that their programming has deleterious social effects.... Yet these interests exercise de facto censorship themselves: in co-opting all programming ... a media monopoly has consolidated the diversity of human experience into a few basic formulas.
Studies reveal, Gerbner says, that violent television shows are rarely those most popular with viewers, but media conglomerates persistently favor violent shows because they are relatively simple to produce and translate easily to foreign markets. In most other democracies, he points out, television is held much more accountable to the public interest, through various systems of licensing, taxation, and funding. Americans (and others), Gerbner believes, should not have to submit to the mercenary dictates of the entertainment industry.

Whereas Stossel's article takes the influence of media violence as its focus, The Atlantic's June, 1990, cover story, "Growing Up Scared," by Karl Zinsmeister, focuses on the shattering impact of violence itself on the development of children. "Young people," Zinsmeister points out, "are not only increasingly exposed to violence: they are also increasingly the perpetrators of violence." He argues that violent juvenile offenders -- and their parents -- should be dealt with harshly and decisively. Forceful preventive measures -- such as locker searches, armed guards, and metal detectors -- should be implemented in schools to send the clear message that violence will not be tolerated. "Physical safety and psychological security are the foundations -- the essential preconditions -- for a child's health, education, and overall development," Zinsmeister emphasizes. "Schools must be sanctuaries, where at a minimum physical safety is guaranteed."

In hindsight it is perhaps telling that the focus of Zinsmeister's article was on inner-city communities where broken families, gang rivalry, and drug trafficking and addiction were (and still are) significant factors in the problem of youth violence. Needless to say, the scourge of violence committed by teens has only spread since Zinsmeister's article was published. "Growing up scared" is no longer an experience limited to the children of inner cities. Sadly, it has required the deaths of teenagers in small towns and suburbs to focus the nation's attention on youth violence.

Clearly the problem can and should be assessed from many angles. But as Scott Stossel pointed out in "The Man Who Counts the Killings," "periods of increasing popular agitation [about youth violence] lead to spasms of political posturing. Studies are commissioned. Imminent legislative or regulatory action is threatened. [But] within a few months the politicians turn their attention to something new."


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