When President Obama spoke on the campus of DreamWorks Animation last month, his only note of admonishment to Hollywood came when he mentioned gun violence, in which he said that “we have got to make sure we are not glorifying it.”
SEE ALSO: Brian Lowry: Why Nothing Changed After Newtown
But nearly a year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, predictions that the incident, which left 20 children and six adults dead, was horrific enough to produce a dramatic shift in gun laws and reduction in violence on screen has proven to be just the stuff of conversations.
In the weeks after Newtown, a focus was on the role of media violence, and videogame mayhem in particular. Industry lobbyists walked a fine line between expressing sensitivity and taking steps to prevent being scapegoated, making the case that research into the link between virtual violence and real-life mayhem was inconclusive.
A 2011 Supreme Court decision, which struck down a California ban on sales of violent videogames to minors, limited what lawmakers could do. A handful of state legislative proposals were introduced and a bill from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) to commence a comprehensive study of videogame and video violence, as well as the ability to use the bully pulpit.
The result? Not much.
Rockefeller’s legislation got out of committee, but it has not advanced since then. The same goes for much of the proposed state legislation, including efforts to impose taxes on videogames with excessive violent content. Biden’s meetings with the industry translated into new campaigns to promote existing voluntary film, TV and videogame ratings, as well as an extensive PSA effort by broadcasters to shine a light on mental health issues.
“I don’t think that really much has been done,” says Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science, and related agencies. “The administration spent a lot of time talking about it and it just kind of evaporated.”
Wolf says that Congress shares some blame for inaction, but he also called on the media to create improved, uniform ratings systems to keep up with the “increasingly violent content of popular media.”
In the weeks after Sandy Hook, Wolf asked the National Science Foundation to convene a panel of experts to produce a report on mass violence. The result cited three contributors to mass violence: access to guns, mental illness and media violence. The report noted the contentious nature of debates over media violence, but it did cite studies showing an increase in “aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behavior” among youth, and a decrease in “helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others.” But their report also called for more study.
James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, which advises parents and families on programming, said that research on media violence is “woefully out of date and incomplete.”
But the Rockefeller legislation “just stalled because of the octopus-like reach of the media industry,” he says, noting that the same thing happened in the middle of the last decade, when then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to establish a research center at the National Institutes of Health to study media violence.
“We have never said that the media and the entertainment industry are the sole cause of the culture of violence in America,” he says. “We do think that it is a contributing factor.”
On Obama’s visit to the west coast last month, Steyer says he attended a luncheon in San Francisco where the president held a Q&A and “was asked how nothing could have happened this year on the gun control front.”
Obama, Steyer recalls, “said that if we couldn’t get gun control after Newtown, I don’t know when we are going to get it.”
Steyer acknowledges that congressional dysfunction also has made it difficult for any legislation to move, but that the industry lobby “doesn’t really want these issues looked at,” noting the popularity of violent content. “Grand Theft Auto V” is this year’s most popular videogame title, having grossed $1 billion in sales in its first three days of release.
Steyer cited a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics showing that the presence of gun violence in PG-13 rated movies has more than tripled since the rating was introduced in 1985.
While he said that he understands First Amendment limitations, he chided industry leaders for a “lack of leadership” in addressing the issue, adding that “their silence on this issue is deafening.”
“Many industry leaders are outspoken on gun control, but where are they on this issue?” he says, calling the gun violence in PG-13 movies “totally unacceptable.”
Yet industry reps say they didn’t oppose the Rockefeller legislation, even if there was some wariness over how it would be conducted. When it passed out of committee last summer, the National Assn. of Broadcasters, the MPAA and the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. expressed support for further study, while the org representing videogame makers, the Entertainment Software Assn., said that they have “always supported objective scientific research.”
In the aftermath of Newtown, there was some effort by movie and TV representatives to distance themselves from the videogame business, with requests made to Biden to hold separate meetings. He did. And the videogame business did find itself on the defensive, with the ESA increasing its lobbying spending in the first quarter to $1.6 million, from $1.3 million in the same period a year earlier. Among other steps, the org enlisted lobbying firm Elmendorf Ryan to help make its case.
In the meantime, The Media Coalition, an org that includes the ESA, the MPAA, the recording industry and booksellers and publishers as members, countered suggestions of a link between videogame and real-life violence with its own reports and links to research, with a number of conclusions to counter what it characterized as “moral panics” following such tragedies. Among them: While media consumption has risen, violent crime rates in the U.S. have dropped. In fact, they note that more videogame sales correlate with less crime.
A study issued in July, “Only a Game: Why Censoring New Media Won’t Stop Gun Violence,” pointed to an array of post-Newtown media fingerpointing from figures on the left and right, including Obama and the National Rifle Assn., but noted that the debate was “slightly more measured than in years past,” with other politicians calling for stricter gun laws or improved mental health care.
“Media Coalition does not claim that the content of books, films or games is never ugly, frightening or even immoral,” the org stated. “But to warrant abridging our cherished Constitutional freedoms of speech and expression, the dangers of that content must be immediate and grave, the evidence must be incontrovertible and a no-less severe alternative to censoring the speech can exist.”
David Horowitz, the org’s executive director, notes that as authorities took a closer look at the background of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, “the concern really wasn’t with media consumption.” The release of Connecticut State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky’s final report showed consumption of video games and violent movies, but also that he spent weekends playing “Dance Dance Revolution” at a local theater.
The reaction to mass shootings, he notes, varies based on the circumstances, noting that other tragic incidents this year didn’t produce the same focus on the role of the media. “If it was a 62-year-old man, instead of a teenager in their 20s, typically the narrative is very different,” he said.
Nevertheless, as the Media Coalition’s “Only a Game” report noted, “the theory that media, not guns, kill people still enjoys wide popular support.”
Update: Rockefeller released a statement on Thursday afternoon. “We will never forget the pain Newtown endured last December, and we should commit ourselves as public servants to do whatever we can to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from ever happening again. In the year since Newtown, Congress has failed to make any meaningful progress on reducing gun violence. I’m deeply frustrated by this. Once again today, I’m urging my colleagues to take a step forward that will help us understand what may be causing violence in our society, and pass my legislation that will convene a study on the impact of violent video games and other content on the well-being of children. We must do everything possible to keep our children safe.”