LYLE AND ERIK MENENDEZ may not realize it, but they owe some gratitude for their recent court victories to Oprah. And Phil. And Sally. Perhaps even Geraldo , Montel, Jerry and Jane.So does Lorena Bobbitt. And probably Ellie Nessler. And Michael Jackson’s teenage accuser, who recently agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement with the pop superstar. While much has been made of television’s impact on violence, few discuss the ways in which the media in general and TV in particular can influence the climate for national discourse — helping to set the agenda, frame issues and establish accepted ways of looking at them. That’s in part as it should be. At its best, television provides a window onto the world, whether it’s students rebelling in China or Bill Clinton and Ross Perot taking political messages directly to the electorate via TV “town halls.” Those images and subtle media messages inform voters and, by extension, potential jurors, whose duty is to act as a surrogate conscience for the community. That window brings its own tint to things, however, and what we’re talking about here is a newfound willingness — indeed, eagerness — to accept victimization as a factor in decisions where it wouldn’t have even been considered before. Indeed, as pointed out Monday in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Virginia I. Postrel, being victimized has become a possible alibi for virtually any behavior, no matter how anti-social or destructive. Bobbitt, who mutilated her husband, explained her action by saying she was a victim of abuse. Nessler, who shot a man in court, was seeking vengeance for her son, also the alleged victim of abuse. The Menendez brothers were lashing out against their parents after years of alleged abuse and molestation. Jackson’s accuser was seeking damages after allegedly having been molested by the singer. All of these claims are based, in part, on the premise that one can’t be held responsible for their actions once they’ve become a victim — a view promoted daily on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,””Donahue,””Sally Jessy Raphael” and their assorted clones. You’re overweight? It’s because you were abused as a child and are now trying to hide behind food. Your marriage ended unhappily? It’s because you witnessed a bad marriage growing up. You abuse your kids? It’s invariably because your parents abused you. The appeal of shows like “Oprah,” in fact, hinges largely on their ability to tap into this culture of victimization. Winfrey herself has stated she was abused as a youth, and frequently brings up her own feelings and experiences in dealing with such issues on her show. Much of the drama in daytime TV stems from presenting the victim and the victimizer, often setting up the latter as a straw man for the audience to knock down. TOPICS KEEP RETURNING to the trauma of being victimized, and the changes it can cause within a panel of four or five who, we’re frequently told, actually represent thousands or millions (how those figures are arrived at is seldom revealed) who’ve faced similar hardships. The Menendez, Bobbitt and Nessler defenses were all calculated to tap into this notion of yielding responsibility based on victimization, and all have become hot media topics. In the same vein, TV movies dramatizing these kind of themes frequently do well commercially because they appeal to the same audience, reinforcing a belief system developed in part by watching all those daytime talkshows. This is where television can have an effect on viewers, and where those who harangue TV over violence make the most sense: Television does play a role in creating context, contributing to what activities seem normal, or at least acceptable. From this perspective, it cannot impel rational people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise, but it can provide rationale for the actions they do take. How do you regulate something as nebulous as that, and where do you draw the line between a TV movie, “Oprah” and a newsmagazine? The short answer is you can’t, other than to ask the media to be sensitive about the messages they send, overtly or implicitly. To do more would risk turning the media itself, pardon the expression, into a victim. GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE, TV kills people: It was hard not to laugh at one of the attorneys for Lyle and Erik Menendez, who said CBS and Fox Broadcasting Co. were “despicable” for planning to air TV movies regarding the story before a retrial could be completed. Granted, the networks get carried away in rushing to get movies on the air, occasionally (witness CBS’ Amy Fisher entry) running fact-based movies before all the facts are in. Still, “despicable”? This, from someone whose clients admit to having shot-gunned their parents to death, reloading to finish the job on their wounded mother? No wonder the television industry gets such bad press. When it comes to TV, anyone can try to grab the moral high ground.
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