Joseph Biden to advise Obama on media violence

VP met with film & TV execs and with videogame reps

Vice President Joseph Biden is expected to deliver a series of recommendations on reducing gun violence to President Obama by Tuesday, amid doubts that the government can do much if anything legislatively to stem the proliferation of mayhem on screen.

Representatives from movies and TV met with Biden on Thursday evening, and executives from the videogame business convened with him in the Old Executive Office Building on Friday, with the case being made for voluntary, industry-run ratings systems that put decisionmaking in the hands of parents.

Videogame firms defended their industry, saying not only that it is protected by the First Amendment but also that research shows inconclusive results in connecting virtual violence to real-life incidents. There were some hints that any action would be in the form of further study or perhaps enhancements to the existing ratings systems.

In a statement released late Friday by the Entertainment Software Assn., reps from the videogame industry said that they “expressed in the meeting that the United States Supreme Court recently affirmed that the independent, scientific research conducted to date has found no causal connection between videogames and real-life violence.”

The org added, “We also recognized that gun violence is a serious problem in our country. We are saddened by the recent tragic events, and as an industry integral to the social and cultural fabric of America, we look forward to continuing our engagement with government officials and policymakers focused on meaningful solutions.”

Nevertheless, the industry has been singled out by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and even as the argument has been made that no causal relationship exists, parents orgs and even groups like the American Medical Assn. and the American Academy of Pediatrics have tried to suggest a correlation between extended exposure to games and some adolescent aggression.

Sitting between John Riccitiello of Electronic Arts and Michael Gallagher, prexy-CEO of the ESA, Biden sought to reassure those gathered that “I come to this meeting with no judgment. You all know the judgment other people have made.”

What was telling was that Biden’s meeting with the vidgame biz was separate from one he held a night earlier with reps from the rest of entertainment, and that the meeting included a mix of company executives and researchers. Also at the table were Attorney General Eric Holder and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, in addition to other reps from Activision Blizzard, E-Line Media, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, Epic Games, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, Take-Two Interactive, Texas A&M, the U. of Wisconsin-Madison and Zenimax Media.

The vidgame business also was singled out by the National Rifle Assn., which in their initial press appearance following the Newtown, Conn., tragedy even cited certain titles in placing blame on the media for contributing and even profiting from a culture of violence.

Yet in a four-page letter to Biden, the interim president of the Entertainment Merchants Assn., Mark Fisher, warned that “blaming movies and videogames is an attempt to distract the attention of the public and the media from meaningful action that will keep our children safer.” He defended the effectiveness of the voluntary videogame ratings system, citing a recent FTC report showing improved enforcement, and pointed to the Supreme Court decision as a reason why “it seems clear that government restrictions on the dissemination of depictions of violence are impermissible.” He also said that a “multitude of previous studies” had shown that “depictions of violence have a de minimus impact on real-world violence,” and government probes over the past decade have not identified media sources among the factors in causing shooting rampages at schools.

The 2011 Supreme Court decision siding with the Entertainment Merchants Assn. struck down California’s law banning the sale of violent videogames to minors. It was sweeping enough to cast doubt on any future efforts to write legislation that would spell out what types of violence merit free speech protections and what do not, even when the government’s interest is protecting the welfare of children.

Despite the apparent limits, lawmakers are still proposing legislative action. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who announced on Friday that he would not run for another term, has proposed that the National Academy of Sciences conduct a comprehensive study of the impact of virtual violence in videogames on real-life aggression among children and teens. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Rockefeller has been a leading advocate on the issue of media violence, and once proposed that the FCC be given the authority to regulate it in the same way that it polices indecency.

One parents org, Common Sense Media, has called on the Federal Trade Commission to require that the gun industry “explicitly and transparently reveal all product placements and other marketing practices and tie-ins with the videogame industry.” It was in response to a New York Times report, following the Newtown shootings and the NRA press conference, on the connections between the gun industry and gamemakers in developing violent games.

The org also is calling for a voluntary moratorium to end the marketing of violent videogames, movies trailers and promotions when children are watching, but also suggests that government agencies take action to restrict such advertising practices. The latter suggestion, however, may still face legal hurdles in surviving First Amendment scrutiny.

In fact, government inquiry into the impact of media violence goes back at least six decades, more often than not resulting in congressional hearings, further study and, from time to time, pledges from industry reps to better police itself. Some were led in the 1950s and ’60s by Senator Thomas Dodd, who chaired a Senate panel on juvenile delinquency and who is the father of Chris Dodd, the former Connecticut senator and chairman of the MPAA who was among the industry reps who attended a meeting with Biden on Thursday evening.

Although no concrete proposals were announced by the reps from TV and movies, Biden said that the 2 1/2 hour session was “very productive” and that those who were there offered “some very constructive ideas.”

In addition to Dodd, those present included Comcast exec VP David Cohen; National Assn. of Theater Owners CEO John Fithian; National Assn. of Broadcasters CEO Gordon Smith; National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. CEO Michael Powell; DGA national executive director Jay Roth; and Independent Film & Television Alliance CEO Jean Prewitt, in addition to a rep from Branded Entertainment. Also attending was CBS Corp. exec VP Martin Franks.

Six of the organizations — the DGA, MPAA, IFTA, NAB, NATO and the NCTA — issued a statement after the meeting, reiterating that the “industry has a long-standing commitment to provide parents the tools necessary to make the right viewing decisions for their families. We welcome the opportunity to share that history and look forward to doing our part to seek meaningful solutions.”

Biden has indicated that his focus would be on “the ones that relate primarily to gun ownership, and the type of weapons we own.” He said that includes proposals for universal background checks and limits on the availability of high-capacity magazines.

When it comes to the media, the real power may be in the form of the bully pulpit, as it has in the past, or in press scrutiny. At the ongoing Television Critics Assn. tour, just about every network and cable channel president has been grilled about violence in their programming choices, with some defending shows not by addressing the level of shooting but by the morality of the story. In the end, the criminals get caught.