By Julie Downs
The shooting at Columbine High School resulted in intense scrutiny of the influence of the entertainment media, some of it from unlikely sources.
There were condemnations from politicians who had enjoyed warm relationships with Hollywood. Movie producers pointed fingers at video game makers. Even the news media chimed in, while its own continuous coverage seemed to wring all the shock and heartache out of the event in language that occasionally resembled a movie script.
The U.S. Catholic bishops addressing sex and violence in the media is not new, nor is it a casually tossed off soundbite in a currently hot debate. The Church has a history of fighting pornography and has for 60 years offered a rating system for movies. Their document, “Renewing the Mind of the Media: A Statement on Overcoming the Exploitation of Sex and Violence in Communications,” was published last summer, well before the recent wave of media criticism. The Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Fund, established by the Religious Alliance Against Poverty (an organization co-founded by Cardinal Bernardin in 1986), helped fund a recently released 12-minute video on “Renewing the Mind of the Media.”
The document attacks the negative images finding their way into our homes from a myriad of old and new sources, but it also argues against censorship. While it urges action on behalf of entertainment and government, the bishops recognize that the power to effect change lies with the viewing, listening and web-surfing public.
“Renewing the Mind of the Media” divides the areas of concern regarding sex and violence into three levels: hard-core, soft-core, and the indiscriminate use to titillate that, while less offensive, is more pervasive and can lead to a moral malaise. “When it comes to judging legally what is excessive … our society lacks even the ill-defined but objective standards by which it currently judges when something is obscene,” the document notes.
The bishops attack the notion that pornography is a “victimless crime,” noting how it plays to the natural human desire for intimacy, but ultimately makes such intimacy impossible. “The result of this pleasure is not intimacy but a disconnection from oneself and others.”
The document commends the Internet as a terrific tool for knowledge, but adds that the proliferation of pornography and hate propaganda on the web, virtually uncontrolled by laws that govern other outlets, poses a particular danger to young people as does gratuitous violence in television programs, movies and video games.
The document takes a thoughtful approach in its criticisms, recognizing the positive influences of the media and even the occasional use of sex and violence that is appropriate for older audiences or may work to communicate a redeeming message. “Even those who sincerely wish to provide morally significant messages — such as the futility of violence or how it destroys those who resort to it — need to consider carefully the use of graphic violence,” they caution.
The bishops applaud television parental guidelines and development of the V-chip, and call upon government to return to its regulatory role of ensuring that media act in the public interest. It makes it clear that they do not support censorship noting, “The Church has experienced the damage inflicted by the power of the censor where governments hostile to all religion, or to Christianity in particular, have sought to limit the reach of the gospel message.”
The bishops also call upon entertainment leaders to seriously evaluate their work, especially Catholics, but they direct the majority of their message toward us. More than government or the entertainment industry, we are the ones who can dictate what is in the public interest, starting with the choices we make within our families and communities. Many laws governing obscenity rely on community standards.
Television and movie producers have often scoffingly told critics to show disapproval at the box office or with the remote control. It may sound like they are escaping responsibility by jumping through a moral loophole, but the bishops say it is still the best way to get their attention. “If the media’s choices need to be scrutinized, so do those of consumers. Some may contradict themselves by watching, listening to, or reading what they say they despise.”
In addition to writing to complain about something offensive, the bishops encourage writing to praise the producers of programs with positive messages.
Parents are encouraged not to cut their families off from all media, but to use the media together with their children. Educators are advised to consider media discussion groups that bring students together to view favorite television programs or listen to popular songs. Young people are often quoted as saying that, because of the actions of a few, they are not given enough credit for intelligently evaluating the media. This would give adults a chance to really hear what messages are coming across.
“Renewing the Mind of the Media” is a thoughtful work, with admonitions to the media and practical, Bible-based advice about living in a society saturated by its good and bad influence. Those looking for a revolutionary “us-against-them” document for the current culture war debate may be disappointed. Ultimately “Renewing the Mind of the Media” calls for change the way the Church has for centuries: within our communities, within our families, and within our individual hearts.
(Copies of the “Renewing the Mind of the Media”document or video can be obtained by contacting the U.S. Catholic Conference at 1-800-235-8722, or visiting the website of USCC’s Communications Office at www.nccbuscc.org/comm/)
Julie Downs is Special Projects Manager for the Office of Communications and Information.