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The Disconnect Between Fact and Rhetoric in the World of Media Politics

By Marjorie Heins

In mid-July, reporting on a recent conference, a progressive Washington think tank wrote that "a plethora of studies" had definitively established harm from "repeated exposure" to sexual or violent media content. Barely two weeks later, a federal court in Minnesota, in striking down a law restricting minors' access to video games, noted that the state had made "no showing whatsoever" that violent content in the games "cause even the slightest injury to children."1 Such is the disconnect between evidence and rhetoric in the strange world of media, politics, and censorship.

The New America Foundation's June 7 conference, titled "Beyond Censorship: Policies and Technologies to Enhance Parental Control Over Kids' Media," had the admirable goal of finding alternatives to censorship. It's therefore regrettable that - without inviting any skeptical voices - the conference organizers embraced two false premises - first, that numerous studies have shown a causal link between sexual or violent media and adverse effects; and second, that filtering and rating systems are an acceptable response to public concerns about dubious media content.2

Both of these false premises have a common root - a simplistic and reductive approach to human expression. Researchers who seek to show that "sexual" or "violent" art or entertainment cause harm are talking about very broad categories of expression, and rarely make distinctions based on context, ambiguity, or tone. The very bases of their experiments are flawed, because they are making generalizations about hugely varying types of creativity under the broad umbrella of "sexual" or "violent" content.

The New America Foundation report, similarly, refers to "good" versus "bad" media, as if the infinite varieties of human communication can be reduced to these two simple categories. The Internet filtering systems that the conference participants touted likewise build on the assumption that there's a clear distinction between good (or "positive") and bad (or "objectionable") in the world of expression.

Of course, it's true that we know pornography "when we see it," and that most parents don't want their kids running into it, whether by accident or design. Likewise, there are probably some video games and movies that a large majority of the adult population would agree are "bad" - gratuitious entertainments glorifying mayhem. But sex and violence are so pervasive in art of all kinds, going back at least to the days of ancient Greece, that pointing to a few noncontroversial examples doesn't go far in defending rating and filtering systems that broadly censor.

The rating and blocking tools that are promoted in the New America Foundation report as parental empowerment tools are actually more like thick and impenetrable security blankets. Rating and filtering are far from transparent processes, and they are fraught with both highly subjective judgments and simple error (the countless examples of mistaken blocking based on key words or phrases such as "pussy," "dyke," or "at least 18").3 TiVo's "KidZone," promoted at the conference by its manufacturer, sounds particularly dubious because it incorporates recommendations from what the report describes as "trusted content monitoring organizations" - including the Parents Television Council, which has been lobbying the FCC for years to get rid of every naughty word on radio and television.

Buying into "proven causation" myths, and promoting filters, are particularly regrettable because there were also good things about the "Beyond Censorship" conference. The organizers recognized that education in media literacy, for both parents and kids, is critical; in fact, it is ultimately the only way to address justifiable concerns about media overload and lousy content, especially advertising for junk food and other threats to public health. As Senator Clinton said in her opening remarks, the mass media today are "clearly filling an enormous space in a child's development." This recognition calls for both media education and serious efforts to fund alternatives - independent, nonprofit media that might, yes, contain sex and violence, but that would also be educational and creative, and would help break the stranglehold of our large for-profit corporate entertainment factories.

August 2, 2006

Update: For the New America Foundation's thoughtful response to this commentary, see


1. Entertainment Software Association v. Hatch, No. 06-CV-2268 (D. Minn. July 31, 2006). This was the latest in an unbroken series of recent federal court rulings striking down video game censorship laws, and finding that claimed scientific evidence of harm does not exist. E.g., Interactive Digital Software Assn v. St. Louis County, 329 F.3d 954 (8th Cir. 2003); American Amusement Machine Assn v. Kendrick, 244 F.3d 572 (7th Cir. 2001); Entertainment Software Assn v. Granholm, 426 F. Supp. 2d 646 (E.D. Mich. 2006); Entertainment Software Assn v. Blagojevich, 404 F. Supp. 2d 1051 (N.D. Ill. 2005); Video Software Dealers Assn v. Schwarzenegger, 401 F. Supp. 2d 1034 (N.D. Cal. 2005); Video Software Dealers Assn v. Maleng, 325 F. Supp. 2d 1180 (W.D. Wash. 2004).

2. Naveen Lakshmipathy and Brian Beutler, "Beyond Censorship: Policies and Technologies to Enhance Parental Control Over Kids' Media" (New America Foundation, July 2006),

3. See Marjorie Heins, Christina Cho, and Ariel Feldman, Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report (Free Expression Policy Project, 2006), for these and hundreds of other examples.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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