Many of the people I know in the media industry are very intelligent and capable. Many are good parents. Many truly believe in their hearts that they’re doing positive things for society with the products their companies produce and distribute. So how is it that so much of what our kids see, hear, and interact with can be such offensive programming?
As we launch yet another fall television season replete with many of the same assaults on the best interests and sensibilities of the kids who are watching, much of what the large media companies actually do will be very different from much of what their leaders think, feel and say. Why? As always, it comes down to their fixation with quarterly profits and stock prices. They can tell you all the good things they do and believe in. They can give you the most articulate examples of artistic freedom and unique creativity. But at the end of the day, the bottom line is the bottom line. It’s all about money. That’s what ultimately dictates their decisions, and the decisions of the individuals who work for them.
As we now know all too well, companies like Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing made poor decisions — decisions that impacted our economy and the public interest — out of an unchecked quest for greater and greater profits. Similarly, today’s media conglomerates are creating programming across all platforms that is often demonstrably bad for kids and our broader society — out of a single-minded fixation on higher ratings and greater earnings. This is just like the tobacco industry selling Joe Camel to kids.
Ken Auletta’s recent book, “The Highwaymen,” provides an extraordinary insider’s view of the various media titans as they compete to control the global communications and entertainment industry. When I decided to write my own book about media’s impact on kids, “The Other Parent,” I went to see Auletta. As we talked about how these industry giants approach the kids and family audience, Auletta kept saying to me, “They’re basically schizophrenics. They lead bifurcated lives. They’re in denial.” I have to say that this has been my experience too.
Industry leaders rationalize their excesses in a variety of ways. There’s the “artistic freedom” argument that you hear so frequently. There’s the “no two people view the same TV show the same way” line. There’s even the “I can point to studies that show that media violence doesn’t cause violence and is actually a healthy release of tension” train of thought that we’ve often heard from Michael Eisner and Rupert Murdoch.
Interestingly, one sees a general distinction between the views of artists, producers, and directors and those of corporate executives. The creative types almost always defend their own artistic freedom and point the finger at the corporate executives who control the distribution of media. That’s just cynically passing the buck while raking in the bucks. While corporate executives may dictate the maxim “profit above all else,” the artists and producers are still responsible for the content that they create, from editing and language to visual images, over which they have control.
The corporate executives, on the other hand, usually hide behind a rather bogus “censorship” defense. As a politically progressive professor at Stanford University who is a passionate defender of the First Amendment, I’ve seen that these industry executives’ arguments are almost always a red herring. This is not about genuine First Amendment freedoms or censorship. It’s about responsibility.
Let’s be very clear here. Major music companies don’t have to market and distribute misogynistic CDs. Television networks don’t have to make “The Victoria’s Secret” special or put “Temptation Island” in primetime; just as certain adult-movie distributors don’t have to distribute snuff flicks. They don’t have to market violent cartoons or gruesome video games like Grand Theft Auto III. But they do have to be held responsible for their enormous impact on the millions of kids who are in the audience.
(James P. Steyer teaches civil rights and civil liberties at Stanford. He is the author of “The Other Parent” and the founder of the new non-profit FIRM (Families Interested in Responsible Media).)