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Let's not let NRA's LaPierre misdirect us with ignorance, lies about media

January 2, 2013 By David Zurawik

What an ignorant, dishonest and pathetic response to Sandy Hook today from the National Rifle Association.

As a media critic, I will limit myself to the disingenuous attack on the media from Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the organization. Of course, it's a shameless attempt to avoid accepting any responsibility by his organization.

But in the interest of a sane discussion about media violence -- rather than the demagogued, crazy-right-wing-paranoid speechifying of LaPierre -- some social science research, facts and context need to be presented.

In that regard, here's the portion of LaPierre's Friday statement that matters:

... And here's another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal: There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.

Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here's one: it's called Kindergarten Killers. It's been online for 10 years. How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn't or didn't want anyone to know you had found it?

Then there's the blood-soaked slasher films like "American Psycho" and "Natural Born Killers" that are aired like propaganda loops on "Splatterdays" and every day, and a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it "entertainment."

... A child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18.

And throughout it all, too many in our national media ... their corporate owners ... and their stockholders ... act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators. Rather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize lawful gun owners, amplify their cries for more laws and fill the national debate with misinformation and dishonest thinking that only delay meaningful action and all but guarantee that the next atrocity is only a news cycle away.

Personally, I find the violence in some video games offensive. I feel that way about some movies as well.

But because I have taught "Children and Television" for the last 20 years at the University of Maryland College Park and Goucher College, I am steeped in the research between on-screen and real-life violence -- particularly for children and adolescents.

Our popular culture has plenty of problems, that's for sure. But you cannot show any direct cause and effect between violence on the screen and violence in real life. You can't. Let's, at least, accept that fact before we start trashing media companies and calling for censorship.

Claims of such cause and effect are based on a totally discredited model of mass communications known as The Hypodermic Needle Theory. It conceives of the media as a giant needle that injects messages directly into our brains.

The media is active, while we are totally vegetable-head passive in this view of how the media works. It grew out of early 20th Century research aimed at trying to understand how dictators like Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini came to power with the help of radio.

In the last three decades, cultural studies scholars have shredded this model. We now understand that each of us reacts differently to media images and messages based on our own histories. We also know there is much resistance to directly accepting media messages -- even from children.

Each semester, I have my students interview children on what sense they make out of TV shows. And one of the findings that consistently surprises my college students is how even pre-schoolers consistently judge what they see on TV against what their parents say and what they see in their real lives.

Even the youngest children are not the passive little receptors you need to believe in to accept the wrongheaded Hypodermic Needle Theory. But why would I be surprised that LaPierre and his ilk base their beliefs on a research hypothesis that has not been widely accepted since the 1950s.

If not cause and effect, is there a link between watching violence and acting violent?

If there is, no one has clearly shown it. There is some evidence to suggest watching excessive violence can lead to some desensitization to it -- but defining "desensitization" is a very tricky and complicated business.

I am not defending gratuitous violence in the media, but that's not the cause of what happened in Sandy Hook. And if you go down the track LaPierre is trying to send the discussion, you wind up with such a sanitized and politically correct popular culture that you can't have TV series like HBO's "The Wire" or "The Sopranos."

Are you ready to shred the First Amendment that way? Let's have a conversation about violence in the media, but let's not let it get as irrational, ignorant and dishonest as LaPierre's statement today.

The most direct cause for Sandy Hook that we can point to with absolute clarity is the easy access an apparently troubled young man had to a killing machine of a weapon.

And that's on the NRA and every politician who played its dirty game for fear of losing votes or funding.

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