White House to examine culture of aggression as part of wider policy plans

Amid mounting pressure on showbiz leaders to tone down onscreen violence, Vice President Joseph Biden has set meetings this week with representatives from the entertainment and vidgame businesses.

The gatherings, to be held separately on Thursday and Friday, come as the administration formulates proposals on gun policy following the December school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

President Obama has asked Biden to focus not just on potential gun-control measures and mental-health issues but on the culture of violence.

The White House hasn’t released a list of industry reps who will be present, but it’s expected to include the heads of key trade associations, including Mike Gallagher from the Entertainment Software Assn., Gordon Smith from the National Assn. of Broadcasters and Michael Powell from the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., as well as reps from the independent film community.

A spokeswoman for the MPAA said she could not confirm whether the org’s chairman, Chris Dodd, would be attending, but Dodd was a longtime colleague of Biden’s in the Senate and, on the day of the Connecticut shootings, attended a vigil that included present and former lawmakers from the state.

Biden also is meeting with representatives from victims groups and gun-safety orgs Wednesday, and with advocates for sportsmen and women and gun-ownership groups on Thursday, in addition to holding conference calls with elected officials across the country. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will meet with representatives from parent, teacher, and education groups, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will meet with mental health and disability advocates. The idea is for Biden to deliver concrete proposals to Obama soon after this week’s meetings.

It is unclear what, if any, action will come from the meetings with reps from entertainment and videogame businesses, given the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision that struck down a California law banning the sale of violent videogames to minors.

Previous White House efforts focused on entertainment content have largely built around using the power of the bully pulpit to persuade the industry to take voluntary action.

President Bill Clinton gathered industry moguls, including Michael Eisner and Rupert Murdoch, at the White House in 1996 and announced an agreement for a new TV ratings system tied to V-chip technology that was eventually mandated by law. Clinton continued to press those in the industry to tone down violent depictions, launching new studies in the wake of the Columbine shootings that included scrutiny of the effectiveness of the V-chip as well as a public-service campaign.

Although the high court has limited the type of action that lawmakers can take over violent TV content, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) has proposed legislation that would have the National Academy of Sciences study the impact of violent vidgames and video, including content accessed digitally. Aim is to produce a definitive study, given the conflicting claims on what the ultimate impact of content is on children. Rockefeller also is calling on the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to update previous reports on violent content, particularly amid the growth of digital media.

Some parents orgs have long criticized the effectiveness of TV and videogame ratings, especially in a changing media environment, and pointed to another problem in the marketing of programming, as viewers have little indication that they will be exposed to violent images.

James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, which gives guidance to parents on program content, said the org wants to see “specific concrete action by leaders from the industry.”

He said Biden’s meeting should be telling, because “the actions will come at the corporate CEO level, not trade associations.”

He noted that his org’s motto is “media sanity, not censorship,” but that there was a role for showbiz to take voluntary action.

“The truth is that this is a really tough issue for the entertainment industry because violence sells,” Steyer said. “The issue is how much they are willing to balance their corporate profit motive with their social responsibility motive.”

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