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We Are a Country Drenched in Bloodshed: Some Hard Truths About Violence in the Media

There are many causes of violence in our culture, but the least understood is the heavy influence of media.

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According to Mary Megee, in the U.S., "most cultural messages are strained through a commercial filter which uses gratuitous violence as an industrial ingredient to keep viewers tuned in, ratings high and profits up."

For corporations, the law of commerce and the market is the ultimate rule. In their highly sophisticated propaganda efforts, media corporations try to obscure the fact that they operate on the public airwaves, with licenses. The government intervenes if a swear word is uttered on air, or when Janet Jackson's nipple was exposed for a brief moment during a Super Bowl show. But the most gratuitous, destructive, dehumanizing violence is not considered worthy of focus, because of the power of the media to shape reality, as well as significantly affect the careers of elected officials and the "fear" associated with tangling with the First Amendment.

It's ironic that parents who push for less violence on TV are labeled "pro-censorship," when in fact the omnipresence of programming filled with violence often displaces more constructive material from the air. "The preference for violence, is made by somebody, elected by nobody, prisoner of a toxic culture," who knows that whomever is in charge expects them "to give priority to cruelty, aggression and hatred," writes Jacques Brodeur. 

The tobacco industry offers a relevant analogy. Tobacco companies (along with the ACLU), in the face of overwhelming negative health data about tar in cigarettes, insisted that the regulation of cigarettes, and the advertising for them, interfered with free expression. It took many years to marginalize the cigarette industry. Twenty percent of the population still smokes, falling by half from 1965 when 42% of adults smoked.  

Changing behavior and fighting corporate power is a long and arduous process, but it's possible.

Isn't Violence Going Down?

We do face a paradox in society where the hugely visible mass murders are increasing, while violence as a whole, as measured by crime statistics, has gone down -- great news. For example, violent crime in Los Angeles is four times lower than it was in 1992. The interesting thing is that no one can explain exactly why. Of course, there is no end of politicians and police officials who take credit for it. The high number of people in jail may be a contributing factor, although many are in jail for non-violent crimes, mostly drug offenses. The high number of police in some cities like New York may contribute to less crime. On the other hand, in Chicago, where the high ratio of police to citizens is second only to New York, crime appears to be out of control.

Nevertheless, it's important to keep in mind how the U.S., despite drops in crime, still dwarfs all developed countries in the number of guns, level of violence, number of mass murders, and number of people in jail and under supervision by the criminal justice system. The fact that violent crime has dropped is certainly good news. But we made the bar so high that we still have epidemics of violence, bloodshed and murder in our society. 

It's worth noting that in the wake of the Newtown massacre in Connecticut, TV and film executives purposefully avoided broadcasting violent programming. The New York Times noted that USA Today stopped broadcasting violent police and detective shows; Quentin Tarantino's gory new film had its red carpet event scaled back; previews of Tom Cruise's new film were canceled; and "Hollywood’s power lunches have been filled in recent days with conversations about hypocrisy."

History tells us that this momentary moral pang will dissipate and the hunt for profit through violence will continue. If we want to get serious and confront this issue, we will have to establish a framework for regulating media violence made by businesses seeking to sell tickets, ads and products to the American public. 

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