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Voices looking for solutions: an introduction to Variety’s special issue on violence and the media

Jan. 15 would have been the 84th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. And Nov. 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. So 2013 is bookended with reminders that we live in a time of idealism, charismatic leaders — and violence.

Some optimists believe 2013 will be a turning point, that the 2012 killings will result in tough legislation. That’s a lovely thought. But the Variety Archives are filled with a century of examples when the same topics were discussed, often using the exact phrases we’ve heard recently (see excerpts in this issue).

After every mass killing, many folks immediately blame the media. That is met by another knee-jerk reaction, this time from the media: “It’s not our fault!”

Of course, there’s not one factor. But the entertainment industry needs to be reminded that “It’s not our fault” is a far cry from “We are totally blameless.” Because we’re not.

Variety Media chairman-CEO Jay Penske conceived of this issue to explore violence in the 21st century, with as many voices and viewpoints as possible. So we have more than 40 contributors, from within the industry and outside. For example, we have people advocating gun control, as well as against it. There are both sides of the vidgame argument. As we worked on this issue, every question led to further questions: about domestic violence, mental health, pharmaceuticals, censorship and technology. Many people were eager to weigh in. Others were too timid to go public.

So what’s the solution? Showbiz usually has another knee-jerk reaction: Throw a fund-raiser or write a check. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s more to do.

  1. Don’t wait for legislation. Actors Equity and the League of N.Y. Theaters began a permanent boycott of racially segregated theaters in 1961, three years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1985, Bob Geldof started Live Aid and raised more than $280 million for African famine relief, which global leaders had been fretting about for ages.
  2. Be patient and persistent. Take action now. However, remember that Americans demand instant gratification, whether it’s quick weight loss, love at first sight or easy answers. However, in the following pages, several people remind that a solution may take one or two generations. We’ve created happy Hollywood endings for so long, where all plot strands are neatly tied up and every action quickly explained, that we’ve begun to believe that’s how life works. It’s not.
  3. Be hyper-sensitive to content. Jean-Luc Godard said every camera angle is a political statement. People in showbiz control content that goes around the world. Don’t underestimate your power or responsibility. Think about every word and action and whether they devalue human life. To remind you of an old motto, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. When asked about violent or demeaning content, some in Hollywood shrug, “It’s what the public wants.” But there’s a fine line between catering to the public and pandering to their basest instincts.

Reports of violence go back to Cain and Abel, so it’s part of human heritage. And it’s been part of entertainment for at least 2,000 years. But technology has provided a 24/7 media assault on the senses that seems to increase alienation and desensitizing. Again, the media is not the sole culprit, but it isn’t helping.

Are humans noble and wonderful? If you look at Michelangelo or Mozart, humans seem kissed by divine fire. Then you read about Aurora and Sandy Hook and see statistics (including some in this issue), and it seems we are still cavemen.

Thanks to all the Variety staffers and our contributors who worked so hard on this edition. You readers won’t agree with everything in this issue. But the point is to get readers to think and, most of all, to take action.

Rev. King and President Kennedy changed the world, but maybe not as quickly as they’d hoped. We can do the same, if we do it right.

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