Now look what you made me do: violence and media accountability

By Peter Hulm

Abstract: This paper applies postmodern theory to the puzzle of media violence: why there seems to be so much of it and why all efforts at control appear ineffective. At the same time, the international perspective throws a different light on the U.S. field: what seems obvious in Washington can appear questionable in London, and vice versa. A new reading of Lacan, Badiou, Barthes and Baudrillard, as well as a return to the postmodern Freud, suggests the media is not as much in control of itself as it believes, and that even its obvious failings respond to a deeper need of the consumer.

Introduction: whose violence?

“Everyone says there’s too much violence on TV but secretly they want more.” – J. G. Ballard

Any number of financially and critically successful films and television dramas in the U.S. have ensured a warm reception by tapping, cynically, myopically or from obvious commercial motives, into the easily aroused general feeling that the media – and particularly newspapers – should be held socially accountable for their treatment of public issues. Identifiable villains include -- to name two of the most famous -- the press agent in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the reporter in Absence of Malice (1981). Other films, such as Citizen Kane (1941), Network (1976) or Broadcast News (1987), draw much of their emotional force from the frisson to audiences of seeing an irresponsible use of the power inherent in operating a media business. Without the audience’s predicted sense of shock, the plots would not make sense.

Hollywood films go notoriously for drama rather than credibility (Maltby 1995 344). As Richard Maltby points out, the incoherence enables viewers to escape the constraints of reality and for a time to enjoy the phantasmagorical operations of dreamwork (outlined by Freud in Traumdeutung/The Interpretation of Dreams). Nevertheless, two long-term university teachers have found these films plausible enough to present them for discussion in their courses on media ethics (Good and Dillon 2002).

Societies themselves, particularly those with dubious claims to democracy, regularly hold journalists responsible for voicing uncomfortable truths. The New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that worldwide at least 792 journalists were killed on duty between 1 January 1992 and 8 July 2009, 71.8% were murdered and 86.5% of them were local correspondents. The perpetrators escaped with complete impunity in 88.7% of the killings (CPJ 2009). Jacobo Timerman in Argentina lived to tell his tale of “the dirty war” – not least that different branches of the military were in dispute over who should control and kill prisoners (1982). By contrast, Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, was shot dead in 2006 after years of courageous reporting from Chechnya (see

Responsibility and the facts

Democratic societies operating (ostensibly) under the rule of law tend to be more conflicted about how far journalistic responsibility extends.

-- Is it OK to hang the Nazi rabble-rouser Julius Streicher, as the Nuremberg judges ordered after the end of the Second World War, but not to take action against Fox News for giving uncensured coverage to supporters of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin who shouted “Kill him!” at the mention of soon to be President (and campaign rival) Barack Obama?

-- Is it fair to criticize the Qatar-based television station Al Jazeera, for its screen blindness to Palestinian terrorism while highlighting Israeli atrocities – but not take action against the New York Times for going along with the lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

-- Are we content to see the imprisonment for life of the Rwanda radio journalists who repeatedly told Hutus to consider all Tutsis as their enemies in 1994, while allowing the man convicted of killing over 200 people aboard Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, to be released under an agreement that seemed designed to improve business relations between the U.K. and Libya?

Unfortunately, none of the assertions above bears close scrutiny. Even at the Nuremberg trials, other Nazi leaders kept their distance from Streicher as too stupid and brutish to deserve a place in the top echelon, as if their anti-Semitism was at a more intellectual level than his – and they included Herman Goering, the architect of Hitler’s racist exterminations, while Streicher was condemned and hanged for his publishing activity.

The “kill him” story about Palin supporters emanated from one journalist, and the U.S. Secret Service was unable to find any evidence for such an outburst, though cries of “liar” and “off with his head” were heard when Presidential candidate John McCain spoke of Obama’s proposed policies (and described the Democrat as an honorable, decent opponent). The Fox News and wizzbang websites document the public record on this story.

Al-Jazeera bases its English language broadcasts on BBC standards of balance (many staff come from the British public broadcaster). The Palestinian National Authority shut down the office in West Bank for its vigorous reporting. Al-Jazeera’s facility for visitor comments on its website publishes the gamut of opinions about its performance. Not a bad record for any broadcaster.

By contrast, when the New York Times apologized on 26 May 2004 for its mistakes on misreporting, it said only that editing “was not as rigorous as it should have been.” The terminology could have been interpreted as a move by the Democratic proprietors to undermine Republic arguments for prosecuting the war in Iraq.

As for Ethe Rwanda radio journalists, the most thorough sociological examination of the 1994 massacres, by Scott Straus, concluded: “My evidence does not suggest that radio propaganda in and ofS itself caused most individuals to commit violence. Most men chose to participate in the killing after face-to-face mobilization and in a real situation of war and crisis. The evidence suggests that radio broadcasts had effects on particular perpetrator populations, in particular local elites and the most aggressive killers. But media effects alone did not drive most participation in the genocide” (Straus 2008:13).

With regard to Lockerbie, few U.K. stories of the release of the convicted bomber mentioned the long-standing controversy over the man’s trial and conviction. A United Nations official observer had described the proceedings as “a spectacular miscarriage of justice” and in 2005 the prosecutor cast doubts on the reliability of the key witness (all documented and sourced on Wikipedia if the journalists had wanted to raise the issue). Instead, the broadcasters concentrated on the differences among victims’ families about whether the man should be released.

The essential question here is not the inadequacies of the reporting but the plausibility of the tendentious phrasing; how many of these statements could pass without raising our suspicions as to their accuracy?

A 1998 survey by the Freedom Forum found that 88 per cent of those polled believe reporters use unethical or illegal means to obtain their stories. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) found in another 1998 poll that 80 per cent of the population think that journalists sensationalize stories to sell more papers (Good and Dillon (2002:xii). But the examples just given, recording an elementary failure to distinguish between debatable ‘facts’ and reliable information, surely require something more as explanation than the commercial motivation of venal news organizations.

The never-ending story of media violence

“Television is the single most significant factor contributing to violence in America.” –Ted Turner, President, Turner Broadcasting System.

The same cloud of puzzlement hangs over the issue of violence in the media and its effects, as well as its accountability. Despite numerous surveys pointing out the shortcomings of research results that point either way, the question returns incessantly, couched in whatever theoretical containerwork happens to be currently in fashion. Thus, in 1994 David Buckingham recorded: “At a conservative estimate, there have probably been over seven thousand accounts of research in the field [of television’s impact on children, particularly violence] published since the introduction of television in the 1950s” (103). But he underlined: “The levels of statistical significance are often low, for example, and the correlations disappear when all the potential variables are accounted for” (106).

In 2001 the American Academy of Pediatrics put the total at more than 3,500 research studies, “all but 18” showing a positive relationship between media violence and violent behavior (FCC 2007:3). The 2001 assessment was strikingly similar to one given elsewhere in 1994 (three thousand), which had been challenged by a researcher who found only 250 “directly related to violence in the media” (ibid).

The differences seem to have been over what constitutes a “study” (ibid). Certainly, there seems to be some misreading of what sociologists mean when they describe a result as “significant”. Michael Males has pointed out that this does not mean the finding is important – only that it is “not likely to happen just by chance” (FCC 2007:10). But the central concern must be the effects recorded.

The British cultural studies scholar Martin Barker declared in 2001: “The expression 'media violence' has to be one of the most commonly repeated, and one of the most ill-informed, of all time. […] Seventy years of research into this supposed topic have produced nothing worthy of note“ (2001:42,43). No scientific work since then has established itself firmly with scholars, as distinct from law-makers, to render this judgment obsolete.

 A course book on Media and Violence that attempted to provide and even-handed discussion of the situation for the U.K.’s Open University said it was unwilling to dismiss all studies claiming negative effects of media violence but the authors had to conclude that research into essential questions related to audience reception was still needed. And they bewailed a “dearth of studies” on how, for example, men and women separately react to film violence, which they judged as overwhelmingly and increasingly misogynistic (Carter and Weaver 2003:64).

At the same time, the field is replete with statistics that seem to assert important ‘truths’:

-- “By the time the average American child graduates from elementary school, he or she will have seen about 8,000 murders and about 100,000 other assorted acts of violence (e.g. assaults, rapes) on network television” (Bushman and Huesmann 2001:227).

-- “By age 18, an American child will have seen upwards of 15,000 simulated murders and about 200,000 acts of violence” (FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, in FCC 2007:31).

-- The key National Television Violence Study vol 3. (1998) recorded that on U.S. network and cable television about one-third of violent interactions were portrayed as justified, and more than one-half produced no visible harmful effects, while good guys tended not to be punished for their violence (Gunter et al. 2003: 5).

-- After reviewing 271 studies, Paik and Comstock declared in 1994: “Approximately ten per cent of the variability in later criminal behavior can be attributed to television violence” (cited by Carter and Wheeler 2003:6).

Whether this extraordinarily precise assertion is true or not, it seems a very small result from the reported ubiquity of media violence in viewers’ lives. The best interpretation a U.S. survey could put on the decades of research was: “Although no reputable media scholar holds that media violence is the largest reason for violence in society, most accept that media violence is a small, but significant contributor to aggressive behavior” (Perse 2001:202).

In fact, in 2006, a U.S. study found that TV viewers over-estimated the risk of youth violence while believing wrongly that punishment was more effective than rehabilitation in reducing such crime (Goidel et al. 2006). White viewers also believed that sentencing was race neutral, while African-Americans held the realistic belief that they were much more likely to receive a harsher sentence than whites for the same offence.

It is also a standard finding of TV research that the more time people spend watching television the more likely they are to believe that violence is common and that people are at risk (Perse 2001:218). But the problems of assessing TV effects are not just those of carrying out enough research.

The British sociologist David Buckingham observed: “U.S. researchers have been keen to conclude that violence on television is a cause of aggression. Although they have often been rather equivocal about exactly how significant a cause it is ,[…] researchers in the UK and in other English-speaking countries have often reached very different conclusions (1994:107). He added: “Even when reviewing the same studies, for example, British social psychologists have generally been much more skeptical than their American counterparts. What appears to underlie these different evaluations of the research are fundamental disagreements about what is to count as evidence, and indeed what is to count as a valid and meaningful research question” (ibid).

The third-person effect

Given the methodological difficulties and doubtful premises of many of these studies, there seems no benefit to be gained from examining the claims in detail, since their differences rarely make them comparable, but it may be useful to point to some of the issues involved.

Perhaps the first point is that most of the direct research used to bolster arguments, for or against media effects, dates back before 2001, even that cited by the Federal Communication Commission in 2007, and this historic detail tends to be buried in the generalizations or a footnote.

Second, the effects of media violence on children have been “the most prominent preoccupation in this field,” as Buckingham notes (108).

The third is that “the dominant assumption in public debates is that children’s relationship with the medium is a fundamentally negative and damaging element in their lives” (104).

Some of this concern may be due what is known as the ‘third-person effect.’ People surveyed tend to see potential harm in media violence for others than themselves. The effect “has emerged as a particularly sensitive predictor of support for strict censorship of media,” reported Barrie Gunter and his team (2003:7).

The problems of ‘hard science’

It is not a damning criticism of the research that it can speak of both “desensitization” and “arousal” effects from media violence, though search for a single causal explanation of everything that is offensive in the behavior of the young is obviously wrong-headed. Attempts to give the research a ‘hard science’ edge have also only served to highlight the difficulties of tackling the issues.

For example, the British psychologist and persistent critic of Freudian method, Hans Eysenck, attempted in the 1970s to give a physical scientific response the question of “desensitization” through media violence. Among the elementary distortions to which his report fell victim is his use of the term itself. In a survey of research he uses “skin conductance” (galvanic skin responses , recording increases in skin moisture) as an objective measure of sensitivity (Eysenck and Nias, 1978:281). Declines in galvanic skin response through repeated exposure to media violence were treated as “desensitization” to real violence. Children who watched either a “violent” Peter Gunn TV episode or a “neutral” Green Acres program then recognized fewer pictures as violent if they had seen Peter Gunn. In another experiment, children who watched a violent scene from Hopalong Cassidy were slower to call in adults when they saw a staged (videotaped) escalation of aggression between two children in another room. Eysenck does not explain why girls were slower to call in help in all cases (253). One obvious explanation for ‘desensitization’, that children watching media violence can learn to ‘container’ their viewing so that it is less arousing, is not considered.

Eysenck’s use of “desensitization”—via the media or watching comparatively mild aggressive behavior – is quite different from the desensitization practiced on Nazi Einsatzgruppen (killing squads) reported by Richard Rhodes. Basing his explanation on the violent-socialization theory of the American criminologist Lonnie Athens, he identifies four distinct stages in the Nazi desensitization process: (1)[physical] brutalization; (2) belligerency; (3) violent performances; (4) virulency” (Rhodes 2002:21,22).

Even less of a schematic scenario was needed for experiment Philip Zimbardo to turn Stanford students into brutal jailors and prisoner victims in less than one week (2007). Zimbardo’s reflections on his 1971 study that became known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment” put the blame on psychologists rather than media for failing to appreciate how much social and cultural factors define situations and legitimatize behavior”. (x/xi). Zimbardo later tried unsuccessfully to obtain clemency for a guard found guilty of abuses at the Abu Ghraib interrogation center in Iraq. Of course, his conclusion does not rule out media effects, but implies that the media, if they come into the picture, are largely channeling society’s “economic, religious, historic and cultural” standards.

Stereotyping the child

Perhaps not surprisingly, U.S. researchers have seemed less concerned than Eysenck with providing a physical basis for their conclusions. Nevertheless, their findings are often cast against romanticized or stereotypical notions of the pre-television child. But age, gender and social class mean that “children can effectively occupy different ‘media worlds’ - […] which clearly undermines any easy generalizations about ‘children’ as a homogenous group, ” Buckingham points out (114). “There appears to be an / implicit view of the child as a ‘deficit system’: children at certain ages are seen to be unable to accomplish the ‘logical’ sequencing of visual images, to recall the ‘essential’ features of a narrative, or to ‘correctly’ distinguish between positive and negative characters -which of course implies that adults’ responses to such things are taken as the norm” (115-6). He also notes that a 1991 report by Susan Neuman refuted the idea that television displaced out-of-school reading (cited by Buckingham 1994:109).

The definition of media violence

Defining media violence itself is not just controversial but an essentially contested concept in sociological theory. In the U.S. the NTVS definition of television violence (vol. 2, 1997) proved an important benchmark. It was:

“Any overt depiction of a credible threat of physical force or the actual use of such force intended to physically harm an animate being or group of beings. Violence also includes certain depictions of physically harmful consequences against an animate being or group that occur as a result of unseen violent means” (Gunter et al. 225).

This definition differed from the earlier influential work of George Gerbner and his colleagues, whose annual report on the status of violence on American network television included natural violent phenomena in its categories, on the grounds that program producers deliberately included such events to intensify the human drama (ibid).

“Violence directed by a human aggressor against an inanimate object was not counted,“ the Gunter survey notes (226). Which is one reason so many frustrated Hollywood characters are seen to take out their anger on the furniture around them (a postmodern explanation is that these are “evocatively nourishing objects” for our dreamtime phantasies, according to Christopher Bollas, in Phillips, 157).

The NTVS categorized media representations into four types thought to cause children to underestimate the seriousness of violence: unpunished violence, painless violence, happy violence (as in cartoons) and heroic violence, such as action by role models (Carter and Weaver 2003:3). Though these terms took over those from an earlier study, the UCLA Television Violence Monitoring Report (1995), Carter and Weaver note that “not everyone will necessarily agree that the representations to which the researchers refer are violent” (such as threats rather than actual violence) and many media researchers “utterly reject” claims that such representations have an effect on adults or children’s behavior (ibid).

A parallel U.K study took over the basic definition of the NTVS, and found that in the mid-1990s, the four major British channels had violence in 28% of programmes compared to the 44% found on the four main U.S. networks by the NTVS (Gunter et al 2003:227). By contrast the two satellite movie subscription channels recorded 80% in 1994-5 and 84% in 1995-6 (ibid 230). Beyond this statistical recording, it is difficult to draw any policy conclusions, and no attempt is made to account for the differences in U.S. and U.K. violent crime on the basis of these figures.

Cause and correlation

Whether considering TV violence for behavioral, emotional, ideological or attitudinal effects, researchers have rarely been able to overcome the methodological difficulties of proving causation from correlation. Until the cultural studies movement entered the field in the 1990s, cognitive and uses/gratifications students tended to treat television programs as having an objective meaning, while considering TV viewing as a more purposive activity than most people would themselves have considered it (Buckingham 1994:114-5).

With its attempts to take full account of the varieties of the “ambiguity, ‘openness’ and contradiction, which many analyses of popular television have shown to be fundamental to its success” (Buckingham 1993:13), as well as the varieties of dynamic institutions and audiences, the cultural studies school not surprisingly has offered little fodder for journalistic generalizations or simple policy-making. The pioneering work of this school, Demonstrations and Communication (1970), by James D. Halloran and others, documented how a protest against U.S. policy in Vietnam outside the American embassy in London was treated by television in terms of its potential for violence and reported on that basis. Its own view of television as an instrument of establishment hegemony in poltiical discourse gave it no reason to study further the causes of media bias, though journalists said they were simply following professional news standards.

Watersheds in the 1990s

Despite the failure of scientific researchers to confirm or disprove theories of media violence effects, 1994 was a watershed in U.K. legislation as much as the 1996 V-Chip (‘parental control’ technology) in the United States. In fact, the anxiety was directed more towards violence on film than on television. Today, as ten years ago (Perse 2001:200), the most popular television programs and movies are not the most violent (unless you count NCIS and Cold Case as violent). But a number (at least two) killings by young people associated by the media with violent videos available in the U.K. led a Member of Parliament to ask child psychologist Elizabeth Newson to prepare a short report on the dangers of “video nasties”, as popular newspapers termed them. Endorsed by 25 other leading psychologists and pediatricians (Cumberbatch 1994:486), this led to changes in the U.K.’s Criminal Justice Bill, imposing £20,000 fines on any distributor that allowed the circulation of films that had not received certification by the U.K. film control board.

Murders and videos

In response to the lawmaker’s request, Newson contributed an unreferreed paper to The Psychologist in June 1994 that was to prove a key factor in changing the law. Reporting on the torture and murder of a two-year-old boy by two 12-year-olds (the ‘Jamie Bulger’ case), along with similar brutal killings by children under the age of criminal responsibility, Newson noted that a number of social factors usually put forward as explanations for violent behavior did not applying to the killers. “What, then, can be seen as the ‘different’ factor that has entered the lives of countless children and adolescents in recent years?” she asks. “This has to be recognized as the easy availability to children of gross images of violence on video” (1994:273).

In the Bulger case, the press drew links with the U.S. film Child’s Play 3. The tabloid newspaper The Sun newspaper organized a public burning of the film on November 25 1993.

Guy Cumberbatch looked more closely at the 1994 report in the Journal of Mental Health that year. Much of her report was based on accounts in the popular press. Cumberbatch observes: “Of course readers of the report might reasonably assume that a professor of child psychology might be expected to know more about the cases described than the average citizen. The attribution of motives such as ‘sadistically’, ‘the expectation of deliberate and sustained violence’, the implied familiarity in the use of ‘Jamie’ (instead of the preferred family name ‘James’) provide an illusory independent verification of press speculation.” (487)

Fanciful links

Cumberbatch then turns to Newsom’s use of the material available on violent videos. “Despite police evidence that there appeared to be no link with video violence in the James Bulger case, [press and policymaker] parallels with [the film] Child’s Play 3 were fancifully drawn.” References to “evidence” of the effect of violent videos turned out to be a case of experts “now agreeing that they were wrong to underestimate the threat of violent videos” (487).

“While Newson does not cite Child’s Play in the context of the Bulger case, she later links it to a murder,” Cumberbatch adds. “However, just as with the Bulger murder, police evidence that videos were not implicated is ignored by Newson. […] The ‘link’ in the murder […] was not to a film but to the lyrics of a heavy metal band” (487).

While proclaiming that she was simply keeping within her field of professional competence, Newson failed to recognize the discrepancies in the stories or the dangers of relying on popular media when appearing before a Parliamentary Home Affairs committee. Newson maintained that the video was implicated, and was corrected. She complained it had been “widely misreported” and commented that the impact “depended on whether that particular girl had seen the film and whether she was able to identify the film from the music” (487). The Committee chair noted: “There were no videos in the houses that this young lady was held in, apparently.” No correction or apology were made, however (ibid).

Confused legislation

Cumberbatch observed that the same confusion existed in legislators’ minds over an earlier killing, when Michael Ryan shot dead 16 people in the village of Hungerfood on 19 August 1987. The press spoke of links with Rambo because of his use of a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Legislation was passed controlling semi-automatic firearms. However, there was no evidence that Ryan had ever seen any Sylvester Stallone films, and he killed more people with a pistol than with the rifle (488).

Following this massacre, a BBC current affairs programme investigated the evidence for links between videos and crime. It found six cases where the press claimed a clear link. “None of these cases stood up to even cursory examination,” Cumberbatch reports (488). The Director of the British Board of Film Classification told the Home Affairs Committee: “I do not know of particular cases in Britain where somebody has imitated a video and gone out and actually committed a serious crime as a result of what they have seen.” And another researcher, David Smith, found 33 reports of similar crimes to the Bulger murder in the previous 150 years. Cumberbatch suggests: “This may well be an underestimate but serves to remind us that such events are not new and should not merit new explanations” (489).

The V-Chip

Similar concerns about video nasties on television with the rise of cable television led to the “V-Chip” legislation – ’v’ refers to viewer control, according to the sponsor of this legislation , though many take it to refer to violence. All televisions with screens of 13 inches or more, sold in the U.S. from 2000, have to contain a control device to enable blocking of programmes deemed inappropriate for specific ages. Signing the bill into law in 1996 President William Clinton, facing an election in which he wanted broad support across party lines, praised the legislation as giving parents power to protect their children from unsuitable content, side-stepping the first Amendment issues brought up by critics. However, the system does not block inappropriate commercials, which has led to protests (FCC 2008), and only an estimated 15 per cent of parents use the control (Kaiser Family Foundation telephone survey, 2004, cited in FCC 2007:14).

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Elizabeth Perse’s formulation that “media violence is a small, but significant contributor to aggressive behavior” should appear in the Federal Communication Commission report for 2007 in these terms: “We agree with the views of the Surgeon General and find that, on balance, research provides strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term” (FCC 2007:3). The generalization gets its most extreme formulation in Craig Anderson’s “No one is exempt from the deleterious effects of media violence” (Anderson et al. 2003, cited in FCC 2007:5).

A skeptical reader, particularly from Europe, might also apply the results to television viewing of sports such as American football – where the aggression levels seem equally intense -- and expect the V-Chip to block such programs. But some backtracking appears in a footnote in the FCC 2007 report. This discloses that the Surgeon-General states in an appendix to the cited 2001 report: “[D]espite considerable advances in research, it is not yet possible to describe accurately how much exposure, of what types, for how long, at what ages, for what types of children, or in what types of settings, will predict violent behavior in adolescents and adults” (FCC 2007:11). The difficulty of proving causation from correlation remains.

Nor should it surprise anyone who has followed the variation between European and American attitudes on media violence that the low use of the V-Chip by parents is treated by Carter and Weaver in the U.K. as an indication that parents are less concerned by TV violence than lawmakers while the FCC, while recognizing that “violent content is a protected form of speech under the First Amendment” (2007:3), saw the failure of V-Chip controls to become widespread as a reason to simplify its rating system and use, and call for an extensive program of action including a summit on “Protecting America’s Children” (FCC 2008). European authorities, including the U.K., use content-identification systems to rate programs, opt-in codes for satellite broadcasting, and “time channeling” for potentially disturbing elements but leave it to viewers to decide whether to watch. The FCC found both the V-Chip and a voluntary TV ratings system “of limited effectiveness” in achieving a reduction of media violence available to children (14, 15).

Some witnesses warned that time-channeling, used to regulate indecent broadcasting, could be ruled unconstitutional if applied to violent material. The FCC suggested that it could be introduced without falling foul of the First Amendment (2007:12). However, it warned, lawmakers would need to produce specific findings to support their views on “the nature of the harm inflicted by violent television content, how to define such content, and the ages of the children that the government is seeking to protect” (2007:12). This can hardly count as a vote of full confidence in previous research. The most vociferous Commissioner for tougher measures, Jonathan Adelstein, himself admitted “there are no easy answers and no panacea” (FCC 2008).

Film and video game violence

“In art, you make what you want to see.* -- NASA Godard Space Station Center, Footprints, Science on a Sphere.

For historians of film, the debates on television violence eerily recall those throughout the 20th century about control of movies, except that British authorities have shown themselves notoriously sensitive to film violence. Tongue in cheek, a British critic described the first Western film, Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), as including “the cinema's first example of truly gratuitous brutality” because of its unmotivated, shock-provoking scene of an outlaw staring into the audience as he fires his gun. More seriously, British film certifiers refused Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin a permit for public exhibition until 1954 on the grounds of its violent content, and it was then restricted to audiences over 16 (Carter and Weaver 2003:43,47).

Censorship in America

At this date it seems hardly worth repeating the history of the media violence debate over movies in the U.S. except to note some salient aspects relevant to the media’s response to action to control violent representation. The first direct act of U.S. film censorship took place in 1908 when Chicago police prevented a showing of The James Boys in Missouri because it “criminalized" American history (Carter and Weaver 2003:44). The same film led the U.K.’s (London) Metropolitan Police to pressure the government to introduce a Cinematographic control bill in Britain. Ostensibly monitoring fire standards, local authorities used it to stop “immoral or indecent” films from exhibition (ibid).

In 1915, Birth of the Nation’s glorification of Ku Klux Klan violence led to its banning in five states and 19 cities, and to a Supreme Court decision that movies could be subject to censorship and “could be regulated through prior censorship and be stopped before reaching their consumers in much the same way dangerous drugs or hazardous chemicals might” (45). Denied First Amendment rights, movie producers set up a National Association of Motion Picture Industries in 1916 to respond to complaints and set written standards for members. But without powers to impose these standards, it proved ineffective, leading in 1930 to the restrictive self-imposed Hays Code, active from 1934 to1968. A major influence on the restrictions was the Payne Fund Studies, which concluded from much research (later much criticized for biased methodology): “Motion pictures played a direct role in shaping the delinquent and criminal careers of substantial segments of those studied”(49).

‘Honoring’ the Code

One reaction by movie producers was to make films that stayed within the Code by glorifying violent law enforcers: G-Men (1935), Special Agent (1935) and Bullets or Ballots (1936). This period also saw the rise of the psychotic villain and the femme fatale, each of whom received due punishment but not before the end of the film.

In 1953, a Supreme Court decision gave films First Amendment rights, effectively protected moviemakers from all charges except “obscenity” (which was always treated in the courts as relating to sex rather than violence). Britain at this time introduced a 16-or-older ‘X’ certificate for disturbing films.

Another key date was 1966, when the movie supervision board revised its content injunctions for the first time since 1934, removing specific stipulations on the depiction of violence and relied on filmmakers “discretion in showing the taking of human life” (54). A new classification, “Suggested for Mature Audiences” was also introduced.

Next year Arthur Penn released Bonnie and Clyde, with its slow-motion depiction of “overkill” by law officers against the two outlaws, and Robert Aldrich The Dirty Dozen, which showed a unit of U.S. soldiers in World War II as “composed of murderers, rapists and other violent misfits” in one description. This led the industry to introduce an age-based coding system in November 1968. The next year saw the release of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, with its climactic gun-battle also in gory slow motion. The way was open for Quentin Tarantino’s cycle of hymns to violence.

From D.W. Griffiths (director of Birth of a Nation) to the film noir directors and the violent moviemakers of the late 1960s, the most controversial violent products have often come from the greatest of Hollywood creators, posing the most difficult challenge to the legislators: the 1952 Supreme Court case was over Roberto Rossellini’s film The Miracle. Stanley Kubrick achieved a similar public stir by staging the gang rape and killing of an artist in Clockwork Orange (1971), and withheld it from distribution in the U.K. for 30 years after reports that it had inspired youth violence, though his widow later indicated that his action followed police advice on receiving death threats (documented on wikipedia).

Video games

Video game concerns have followed the same pattern, with psychologist Craig Anderson leading those convinced of effects from both television and games (FCC 2007:5). The UK censor in 2007 issued its first ban of a violent video game for 10 years, by the same Scottish firm that created the controversial Grand Theft Auto series. The board said giving Manhunt 2 a certificate "would involve a range of unjustifiable harmrisks to both adults and minors" (Daily Record 2007:23). Under U.K. rules it is not illegal to own a game bought abroad. The previous game to be refused a certificate was Carmageddon in 1997 but the ban was later reversed.

Moral panics

All three forms of media suffer from what have been termed “moral panics,” a phrase originating in the United Kingdom, used by Jock Young in a book on public concern about Mods and Rockers, two groups of teenagers (mainly men) with two distinctive styles of dress and transport (scooters vs. motorbikes), who were thought to be violently opposed to each other. In fact, their relations were often amicable, even friendly or indifferent. But British media whipped up stories about their opposition.

The classic work used to discuss media-channeled symbolic working-out of what are seen as threatening issues, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) by Stanley Cohen, does not forefront media in its definition of a moral panic: “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (16). The issues, in his view, are not just driven by media agendas. Mass media can stimulate such panics simply by reporting the facts rather than campaigning , he points out (16).

The terminology is itself suspect, however, in its presupposition of a grounded moral concern and an emotional rather than rational stimulus. There is no reason to doubt assertions by bodies such as the FCC that many parents are concerned about the amount of violent programming available to children (2007:2).

Postmodernism to the rescue

“Death is the catastrophic knowledge, the truly forbidden thing, that everyone has to be protected from because no one can be.” – Adam Phillips (1994:xx)

A survey of the issue of media violence thus confronts a reader with starkly opposed ‘scientific’ views on the effects, except on the minor kind, legislation prompted by misunderstandings, and ‘moral panics’ with no basis in fact, laws and devices that admittedly fail to achieve their goals, media whose commitment to accuracy in reporting cannot be taken for granted, entertainment producers who are skilled at ducking under the net of regulation or challenge it in the name of art, the eternal recurrence of demands for control, and widespread parental anxiety about the impact on their children, even if none seems immediately visible. Is the media simply a scapegoat, a willing accomplice of evil forces, a powerseeker in the battle over commodified culture– and should it be held accountable for its products? If so, how?

The thesis of this paper is that only postmodern theory can provide a coherent understanding of the processes at work, and that if the media are implicated in the dissemination of violent images, they are not necessarily accountable. Changing their behavior will require more than simply adopting new practices.

The return to Lacan

The first step is to go back to Sigmund Freud via the controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and to Lacan via the cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek and his other interpreters. In what he termed “the return to Freud”, Lacan provides a re-reading of Freudian theory that brings to the center-stage some of his neglected writings, particularly “Screen Memories” (1899), “The ‘Uncanny’”(1919) and “’A Child is Being Beaten’” (1919). “Screen Memories” documents how we may fabricate memories and give these phantasies a pleasurable tinge to hide anxieties about repressed real events. “The ‘Uncanny’” recounts how we can find ourselves repeating actions we can’t explain– in Freud’s case continually finding himself back in a street of “painted ladies” when trying to find his way around a strange town. It also includes a moving footnote recounting how Freud one day rose from his seat in a railway carriage to see an old man doing the same, then realized he was seeing himself in a reflection. “’A Child is Being Beaten’” gives Freud’s interpretation of what he thinks is happening in a particular fantization: “It is surprising how frequently people who come to be analysed for hysteria or an obsessional neurosis confess to having indulged in the phantasm,” he wrote (1919b:172). “Very probably it occurs even more often with other people who have not been obliged to come to this decision by manifest illness.”

Lacan’s rereading of Freud led him to elevate Thanatos (badly translated as the death drive) to a pre-eminent position, bringing psychoanalytical thought into line with the pre-eminent postmodern philosopher Martin Heidegger, for whom death was the unthinkable challenge to human thought (Homer 2004). Lacan also brought order into Freud’s varying ideas about the drive (Trieb, another difficult word to find anything more than the inadequate official English translation). In contrast to the instincts, which Freud saw as physical, the drives (as creations of phantasy) cannot be satisfied by their realization (ibid 75).

This gives us a meaning for the apocalyptic writer J.G. Ballard’s cryptic comment that though we complain there is too much violence in the media, we secretly want more. In Lacanian terms, the male appetite for violence is unending. We can never have enough. At the same time this need cannot be acknowledged. Women, as researchers have found (Perse 2001:200), do not find media violence appealing, perhaps because their capacity to give birth guarantees their future (at least in phantasy). Men have to live with the fact of their death and extinction, part of what Lacan termed the Real – the unspeakable truths of our existence to which we must find inadequate compensatory phantasies, such as the ego, the deceptively stable idea of ourselves we continually reassemble from fragmentary experience.

The obverse of pornography

We find the obverse of this situation in pornography, which is of equal public concern, an almost exclusively male preoccupation, and likewise finds no solution in legislation. Pornographic movies re-enact the phantastic male fear that through the pleasures of sex, with its multiple variations, women block men from the simple act of reproduction. Feminists who complain that porn degrades women miss the point. Of course the woman has to be degraded into an instrument for men’s desires, in order to stifle the fear that dare not speak its name. Otherwise male homosexual films would serve the purpose of excitation for the man viewing just as well. Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Snuff (2008) derives its creative and comic energies from the disquieting idea that a porno movie resulted in the birth of a child.

In both violent and pornographic movies, the stability of the constructed ego is challenged. But the violence stands in for something else: the fact of death. Interestingly, the definitions of violence used in the public debate do not distinguish between death and violence. Death is almost “the forbidden thing” from which we must be protected, as the psychotherapist Adam Phillips points out (1994:xx). He also observes: “The protection racket - like all protection rackets, and particularly the one arranged with oneself - leaves us radically unprotected.”

This gives us a clue to the function of media violence in our phantasies. In “’A Child is Being Beaten’”, Freud comes to the conclusion that “the original form of the unconscious male phantasy was […/]:’I am loved by my father’ “(194-5). In Lacanian terms, this can become a phantasmic celebration of survival (against the Real inevitability of death). The best way to become immortal, at least in phantasy, is to be the last person left alive – and the more violent the test, the more secure the satisfaction of the phantastic wish.

We can see the mechanism in operation in the films that fail to disguise their phantastic content (and often claim the defense of art as a result). Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch present us with artists who seem not quite in control of their phantasies. Forty years on, Tarantino is much more in synch with the dreamworld that video art explores, as French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was from the beginning. Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) shows us Jean-Paul Belmondo wrapping explosives round his head in an almost playful, certainly parodic, suicide (“the only successful act” in Lacan’s view). Suddenly Belmondo understands that the phantasy is real and attempts to stop it. Godard then pulls back and, almost consciously, celebrates his own (and our) survival when the character blows up before our eyes. The final scene of Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) , when two women stomp a serial killer to death, taps into the same responses. Women, of course, can laugh here at the phantasy being indulged.

The phantasy is not real

How is it then that a single viewing of Rambo or any of the pectoral dramas and chain-saw gorefests fails to console us? Why do we need to be reminded of the dreadful subject we cannot acknowledge? As Freud’s “The ‘Uncanny’” reminds us – and it seems no accident that Freud’s abrupt self-reminder of his mortality is a footnote to this essay – we unconsciously seek out disturbing experiences that can stand in for what is really troubling us. The sexual tone to his lost wanderings is a red herring, as in pornography or Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, where the real story is that an unknown woman sacrifices herself in order that Tom Cruise may live, but the drama is cast in terms of sexual adventure.

Because of our insecurities, we need constant reassurance of our immortality. The categories of violence that the NTVS catalogues (unpunished violence, painless violence, happy violence and heroic violence) can be seen as just ways to enable us to enjoy a varied diet without becoming bored, rather than different types with measurably different effects.

But, as Freud noted in the child-beating phantasy, the insatiable male appetite for reassurance of immortality is purely a phantasy and no predictor of a physical pleasure in violence: “It might […] be expected that the sight of another child being beaten at school would also be a source of similar enjoyment [as in the phantasy]. But as a matter of fact this was never so” (173-4). Patients usually spoke of a feeling of repugnance as well as excitation, and “in a few cases the real experience of the scenes of beating was felt to be intolerable.”

The place of the child

For Lacan, who produced pioneering studies of the infant’s construction of the ego in face of the Real (“The Mirror Image”), the extension of media violence into children’s programming would have been no surprise, given the ubiquity of Thanatos in our imaginative lives. To transpose Karl Kraus’s epigram on sex education: one can never learn too early how death is (to be) avoided.

British sociologists are often skeptical of adult claims of concern for children, and not just because of the “third-person” effect. For some, as noted by Carter and Weaver (75), it is seen as simply a way to assert adult control over children and create an artificial distinction between the two groups. For others it involves a construction of innocence that, for example, denies children political views or autonomy: the use of child soldiers in a cause is widely thought to discredit it (Alvardo et al. 1987:233).

Such symbolic manipulation opens the way for the consciousness industry to perform other profitable acrobatics with the imagination. “The construction of sexual innocence in children allows some media products to offer the exploitative frisson of portraying children involved in ‘adult’ sex and violence,“ .write Alvarado, Gutch and Wollen in their school textbook. There is nothing radical about such products , they observe: “The pornographic representation of children does not challenge the cultural misrepresentations of childhood sexuality, but merely confirms children’s passivity within the usual exploitative and voyeuristic male domination of pornography’s visual regime” (ibid, 232).

Nevertheless, the UK, notorious for its neglect of children’s welfare (“Compared with other European states, Britain could hardly be regarded as a child-oriented society,” wrote Roberta Garrett in a 1997 textbook [146]), has prosecuted child pornography cases with a vigor that most observers found misplaced. A man who photographed his child and another playing naked after swimming (in the presence of the two mothers) had to wait 14 months for a jury to clear him of indecency. “The juridical intervention by the state was highly intrusive and also, arguably, indecent. It included interrogations over sexual acts that never took place, with the children reduced to tears while also being exposed to the sight of their parents being browbeaten by suspicious police officers,” reports the journalist Laurence O’Toole (O’Toole 1999:217). He decided after investigating several other cases: “Worries over child sexual abuse and child pornography [have] led to the situation where nearly all images of children are sexualized and seen as open to doubt” (ibid 238).

The British action was possible because the Protection of Children Act of 1978 permits any nude photograph of a person under 16 to be deemed indecent. “The bulk of visible police and judicial activity in the UK concerning child porn actually involves images of a non-pornographic nature -family snaps, naturist images and art-work,” he found. For example, a woman television newsreader and her husband were arrested (though not charged), over photos of their daughter taking a bath (225).

He contrasts “the public nature of porn” to *the elusive, secret reality of the sexual abuse of children that occurs mainly in private.” Campaigner Linda Williams observes:”‘Because of this…exhibitionist quality, it is often porn, and those who can be vilified through its use or production, rather than real sexual harassers, who end up being blamed and punished [1993:53].”

Conspiracy theories

O’Toole found little evidence of child porn rings (two or three prosecuted a year) compared to the publicity given to such cases (mainly of downloading material to computers), and observes: “Panic over child porn […] can also be roused in order to make adult porn look guilty by association, as though watching a video of two adults having sex somehow connects the viewer with the darkest of abuses. [….] The reality is that the adult entertainment industry employs only adults to produce porn entertainment for adults” (218-9).

O’Toole also condemns the conspiratorial tone given to the idea of child porn rings. “With conspiracy we tend to project outwards, giving a kind of shadowy presence to villainy while placing crimes against children in nasty, dark, ‘other’ situations, rather than in the place where children appear to be most at risk: in families, in children’s homes, in foster families etc […] Conspiracy theories reflect the desire for easy answers and clean solutions, but they risk turning a society’ attention away from the wider problem of abuse” (222-3).

The British record since 1999 is not good, including the arrest of a famous pop artist who was the first to bring child abuse within the family to the public stage (no further action was taken on his use of a credit card to enter a child porn site but he received no apology). The PCA was still being used for prosecutions after 2000 though an equally controversial Sexual Offences Act was passed in 2003 to replace all previous sexual offence laws.

Feed your phantasies

The consumer “no more ‘believes' in advertising than the child believes in Father Christmas, but this in no way impedes his capacity to embrace an internalized infantile situation, and to act accordingly” – Jean Baudrillard (1968:181).

Once the child is grown, what replaces the adult who protects? Lacan spoke of “the subject supposed to know,” a reformulation of Freud’s notion of transference (Homer 2004:123). The patient supposes the analyst knows everything that is hidden, and the analysis is only completed when the patient realizes that the doctor has no more special power or knowledge than the person being treated. Lacan’s own controversial methods, such as breaking off sessions after only a few minutes, were designed to accelerate this process.

In televisual societies the media is the subject supposed to know, but it also has no reason to end the analysis. What it is supposed to know is the truth, but, as Baudrillard makes plain, it also supposed to know and feed our phantasies, which want to have no truck with truth. “The unconscious knows no negation,” said Freud (Žižek 2009:86). Hence media are always caught within an aporia of duty when the two demands conflict.

Television, following film, has chosen to feed the phantasy, while newspapers have chosen phantasy but proclaim their commitment to truth and are in permanent decline having lost their credibility on both fronts (see the introductory section). The Internet has not yet found a formula (outside pornography) to present its phantasy products. Blogs and twittering mix the trivial with the important with no differentiation between them.

Sixty years of experience have taught news television that the best phantasy setup for its presentations is the mutually supportive middle-aged couple. The U.K. for its own cultural reasons, prefers the bickering couple to anchor its “lighter” news programs, just as its advertisements often feature couples who jeer at the other behind their backs, in place of pure delight through the possession of commodities in the U.S. Both couples interact visually with the camera, however, rather than each other.

The news machine at work

We can see the effects of the “subject supposed to know” in the management of news. W. Lance Bennett reports that when an unemployed man set himself on fire in front of a TV news crew in what he presented as an act of despair in protest against the Reagan administration's social and economic policies some 25 years ago, "this news story, with its highly unconventional form of political action and its equally radical message, was quickly replaced by official pronouncements from local authorities (none of whom were at the scene of the original event) that the man was not in his right mind. The news media then completed the repair operation on the momentary tear in the seamless web of cultural meaning by condemning the decision to report the story in the first place as bad journalism" (Bennett 1997: 116).

This is a striking and egregious but not unusually occasion of media transformation of events. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana and Mississippi coast on 29 August 2005, media reports spoke of the disintegration of public order, rape and looting in New Orleans. The city’s police commissioner was quoted in the New York Times as saying that in the convention center where refugees gathered: “The tourists are walking around there, and as soon as these individuals see them, they're being preyed on. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets.” A month later he conceded: “We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault” (Dwyer and Drew, 2005).

For Lacan’s disciple Slavoj Žižek the intriguing aspect was how this fallacious presumption of lawlessness ran so long without investigation and had material effects: the rumours generated fears that "led the authorities to change troop deployments, they delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters" (ibid). The real catastrophe, however, was “to a large extent due to human failure; the protective dams were not good enough, and the authorities were insufficiently prepared to meet the easily predictable humanitarian needs which followed” (Žižek 2009:80). Nevertheless, the media depicted the social catastrophe largely in terms of lawlessness by the poor (blacks). This, he suggests, is because “poor blacks abandoned and left without the means of survival” (84) had become “subjects supposed to loot and rape” (83).

Lying in the guise of truth

Even if violence had erupted, the reaction would still have been grounded in racial prejudice, Žižek emphasizes. Lacan had said that even if a patient's wife is really sleeping with other men, the man’s jealousy is to be treated as a pathological condition, and even if rich Jews did what the Nazis said, their anti-Semitism was pathological. “What made it pathological was the disavowed libidinal investment into the figure of the Jew [...], the spectral figure of mixed fascination and disgust. Exactly the same applies to the looting in New Orleans [...] What motivated these stories was not facts but racist prejudice,” Žižek writes (85). He terms this pathological condition “lying in the guise of truth” (ibid).

When this condition is given expression, official Christian and democratic discourse is “accompanied by a whole nest of obscene, brutal, racist, sexist fantasies, which can only be admitted in a censored form" (86). Thus William Bennett, the neo-conservative author of The Book of Virtues, said on 28 September 2005 on his call-in program Morning in America: 'If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down." Two days later, Bennett defended himself with the statement: “I was putting a hypothetical proposition... and then said about it, it was morally reprehensible to recommend abortion of an entire group of people.” (The New York Times 2005).

As Freud’s “Screen Memories” documented, such censorship can only operate if it is unacknowledged. For media this screen is professionalism.

The media supposed to know

“We like to blame someone. It makes us feel safe.” -- Jeff Bridges (the actor)/ Ehren Kruger (the writer), Arlington Road (1999).

What does journalistic professionalism mean? On television, for instance, it means not analyzing the advertisements or statements that that surround and interrupt your programs., even if you have a segment (like Anderson Cooper on CNN) entitled “Keeping Them Honest”. Similarly, the broadcasting organization is “supposed to know” whether violence or indecency is found in the advertisements it accepts, though the FCC notes continual abuses (2007:21).

This displacement is a familiar psychological mechanism. It works both ways. The “real” person (the ego) can deny responsibility in favor of the subject supposed to know. At the same time, the subject supposed to know can relieve us from the responsibility of relating truth to phantasy. As Žižek remarks, a TV show filled with canned laughter makes us feel relieved even when we do not laugh (82-3). It is extremely unusual, not to say disturbing, for a person to question this containerwork. When a TV reporter expresses shock or astonishment at what someone says, the person being interviewed is unlikely to ask back whether the journalist is faking the emotion, and is expected to react as it if is genuine (rather than fake a response). Movies, whose owners have their own motives for casting television (owned by other conglomerates) as fakery, sometimes expose this mechanism for dramatic surprise: The China Syndrome (1979), Network, The Weatherman (2005). A key element is their unbelievability – the viewer is expected to suspend disbelief while at the same time recognizing their sheer incredibility. HBO’s series The Wire (Simon and Burns 2002-2008) offered a more sophisticated take on television’s manipulations. In the fifth series, which highlighted media issues, the ambitious mayor of Baltimore expresses genuine outrage at the way in which cities treat the homeless, and is immediately told by his political adviser this indignation plays very well and can be used to promote him into the governor’s mansion.

Some broadcasters have, on the real screen, broken out of their restraints. British TV chat show host Clive Anderson, last seen chairing a game show, said once in the middle of his program: “We’ve got to stop for a bit now while people try to sell you things you don’t want” (Cook 1992/2001: 35). But that was the only example that linguistics professor Guy Cook could find in researching advertising on television.

Framing the viewer

Lying in the guise of truth operates more subtly through the professional framing that television journalists give to their programs. Over 20 years ago, Barrie Gunter, now at Leicester University, reported that news comprehension studies showed standard story-telling formats do not provide the optimal conditions for learning. Alternatives “have been demonstrated as producing better learning from news broadcast materials under laboratory conditions than did original broadcast versions of the same stories” (1987:312). Nevertheless the old styles are still in vogue. If anything, the personalized news presentation is even less conducive to retaining information and “there is no conclusive evidence to support the thesis that film is necessarily more appreciated by the audience than other visual modes of presentation” (314). “Where effective communication of information is the ultimate goal, the impact of stills and graphics can be just as great” (ibid). When audio fails to match up with video even slightly, “the negative effect upon overall information gain could be considerable” (315). Summaries at the end of items (316) and quick changes of topic, common TV news techniques, can work against retention (317) unless carefully planned. “Good television” makes for bad communication.

All this presumes that news programs aim at offering information for viewers to retain. Journalists usually lack objective feedback about their audiences attitudes and do not want to learn what these might be. (308,317). They have little direct contact with the audience (318). A study by Herbert Gans in 1979 indicates the results:

“When a network audience-research unit presented findings on how a sample of viewers evaluated a set of television news films, the journalists were appalled because the sample liked the films which the journalists deemed to be of low quality, and disliked the ‘good stories.’ In fact, the viewers' sample made its choices on the basis of film topics rather than film quality, preferring films about personally relevant topics to those about important national and international news. The journalists were so involved in judging the films from their own perspective, however, that they did not notice that the viewers' sample applied a very different one,” (Gunter 2987: 320). Later studies have confirmed this gap.

Journalists live continually with this dilemma. They proclaim their commitment to truth while operating on a commercial world that caters to phantasy. As a result, they find themselves regularly parroting a version of the favorite line of the domestic abuser: “Now look what you made me do.” Tom Koch noted in 1990 that over 70 percent of the stories in the nation's principal newspapers were based on the statements and quotes of government officials (175). “Objective truth is not the function of daily news,” he argued. It operates at the level of generated myth, as delineated by Roland Barthes in his various writings. Myths are judged not by their accuracy but usefulness.

In public issues, such as violence and disasters, journalists promulgate a myth of concern and competence on the part of professionals and investigating officials. This “need bear no relation to the facts of a case, to the objective description of a specific event through the analysis of its parts. The narrative form assists officialdom to seem able and potent even where its sanctioned explanations are demonstrably fictitious,” Koch remarks (172-3).

Professional standards enable the reporter to practice displacement but as subjects supposed to know, they must fill the role of the questioning citizen in the same way as canned laughter on comedy shows fills in the responses for the real viewer.” Typically this does not require of officials either conscious censorship or active disinformation,” Koch insists. “It is done automatically by editors and reporters themselves through a narrative form that assures that systematic faults will be transformed into isolated and thus unimportant events (ibid).

Treating such incidents as individual events provides the same psychological comfort as ascribing misfortune to an accident. Accidents, writes Adam Phillips, are “the best way, indeed, the only way of doing some things. Accidents [are] disowned intentions; other voices speak through our mistakes. [...] The idea of accident - of the apparently unintended, the contingent - gives us access to otherwise unavailable desires or parts of the self. [...] Without a notion of accident or contingency we would not be able sufficiently to disown them” (1994:12).

The authorities who make journalists pay for voicing uncomfortable truths are refusing them the benefit of the accidental, and often suspect them of satisfying unacknowledged desires. Conversely, declares Žižek, creating a society built on truth, justice and fairness – whose rules John Rawls attempted to formulate in A Theory of Justice (1971) -- would lead to uncontrollable resentment in much of the population. “In the Rawlsian model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they also help those at the bottom of the social ladder, and insofar as they are based not on inherited hierarchies, but on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits. [...] What Rawls doesn't see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of ressentiment in it,” he comments.” I would know that my lower status is fully 'justified' and would thus be deprived of the ploy of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice" (Zizek 2009:75).

From The Front Page (1931) to The Wire, the phantasy-feeding industries have beaten up on the truth-seeking organs as an expression of their resentment, usually suggesting the moral high ground is immorally achieved. The exceptions All the President’s Men (1976) and Goodnight, and Good Luck (2005), come from the fringes of the movie world.

Mobilizing the living dead

The cultural critic Jean Baudrillard came to the conclusion in 1985: “What characterizes the mass media is that they are opposed to mediation, intransitive, that they fabricate noncommunication - if one accepts the definition of communication as an exchange, as the reciprocal space of speech and response, and thus of responsibility” (1985:205).

The leading philosopher of political activism, Alain Badiou, has pointed to the way in which media practices fragment and dissolve the individual’s effort to maintain an intelligible picture of the world: “Communication transmits a universe made up of disconnected images, remarks, statements and commentaries whose accepted principle is incoherence. Day after day communication undoes all relations and all principles, in an untenable juxtaposition that dissolves every relation between the elements it sweeps along in its flow. And what is perhaps even more distressing is that mass communication presents the world as a spectacle devoid of memory, a spectacle in which new images and new remarks cover, erase and consign to oblivion the very images and remarks that have just been shown and said” (1999:41).

This oblivion arouses another anxiety for the audience which only the phantasy of violence can assuage. “For the millions of people without a history, and happy to be that way, it is necessary to deculpabilize their passivity,” argues Jean Baudrillard in La Société de Consommation (meaning both The Consumer Society and The Society of Perfect Pleasure/Consummation). “This quietude of the private sphere must appear[…]constantly threatened, surrounded by a world whose destiny is catastrophic. The violence and inhumanity of the external world is necessary not only so that security is experienced more profoundly as such (in the economy of pleasure) but also so that at every moment it feels justified in being chosen as such” (my translation).

In the United States, Curtis White jokes that we are all now joining the living dead. “The frenzy of communication” in advanced societies operates, he says, is part of the consciousness industry’s “pre-emptive efforts to saturate the field in which the imagination might do its work.” (2003-4). One of the few American television series to attempt to portray the impact of death in individual’s lives, rather than cater to the phantasy of immortality, was Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under (2001-5). In the words of sociologists Avi Shoshana and Elly Teman: “The series hurls death provocatively in the viewer's face, each episode consciously serving as a ‘memento mori. for its audience” (2006) In 2009 he launched his latest drama, True Blood. It deals with vampires.


For easier access and review I have kept to a few main sources rather than indicate the references they have drawn on. These key works are repeated in the full list. They are:

Buckingham, David. 1994.“Children and television: a critical overview of the research.” In Leicester University Centre for Mass Communication Research, Reader 4, pp103-127, 1994, and Dickinson et al. Approaches to Audiences: A reader, 1998.

Carter, Cynthia and C. Kay, Weaver. 2003. Critical Readings: Violence and the Media. Open University Press.

FCC. 2007. FCC 07-50.

--              2008. “Commissioner Adelstein outlines an agenda to protect America’s children”. Federal Communications Commission, June 11, 2008. Consulted at on 24 August 2010.

Gunter, Barrie. 1987. Poor Reception. L. Erlbaum Associates.

Gunter, Barrie, Jackie Harrison, and Maggie Wykes. 2003. Violence on television. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Homer, Sean. 2004. Jacques Lacan. Routledge.

Perse, Elizabeth M. 2001. Media Effects and Society. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2009. Violence. Profile Books.

Jacques Lacan’s works, for a non-specialist, are best approached through his interpreters who are aware of the twists and subtleties of his thought, which require an alertness to nuance that can often defeat the casual reader. Homer has a good survey of these commentators.


Anderson, Craig.A., L. Berkowitz, E. Donnerstein, R.L Huesmann, J. Johnson, D. Linz, N. Malamuth and E. Wartella. 2003. “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, p. 81-110.

Alvarado, Manuel, Robin Gutch, and Tana Wollen. 1987. Learning the Media: Introduction to Media Teaching. 1st ed. Palgrave Macmillan.

Badiou, A., 1999. “Philosophy and desire.” Reprinted in 2003

--              2003. Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy. eds. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens, trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens .London; New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

J.G. Ballard. 1994.Essays for the New Millennium. Picador, 192.

Barker, Martin. 2001. ‘The Newson report: a case study in 'common sense',’ in M. Barker and J. Petley (eds).

Barker, Martin, and Julian Petley. 2001. Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate. 2nd ed. Routledge.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1968. La système des objets./The System of Objects. Verso: 2005.

--              1970. La Société de Consommation/Consumer Society.

--              ‘The Implosion of the Social in the Media, 1985, in Poster 1998.

--              2002. The Spirit of Terrorism. Trans. Chris Turner. Revised. London; New York: Verso Books.

W. Lance Bennett. 1997. “Cracking the News Code. Some Rules that Journalists Live By.” In Iyengar and Reeves 1997.

Bridges, Jeff. See Pellington.

Buckingham, David. 1993. Children talking television: the making of television literacy. Routledge.  

Bushman, B.J. and L.R. Huesmann. 2001.”Effects of televised violence on aggression,” in D.G. Singer and J.L. Singer (eds) Handbook of Children and the Media. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Carter, Cynthia and C. Kay, Weaver. 2003. Critical Readings: Violence and the Media. Open University Press.

Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Paladin.

Christakis, Nicholas A., and James H. Fowler. 2009. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Little Brown and Company. Quoted in New Scientist 29 September 2009, 40.

Cook, Guy. 1992/2001. The Discourse of Advertising. Routledge. Second edition 2001.

CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists), 2009. ‘Journalists Killed.’ [accessed 27 September 2009].

Cumberbatch, Guy. 1994. “Legislating mythology: video violence and children.” Journal of Mental Health 3: 485-494.

Daily Record. 2007. “Brutal & Sadistic; UK Censors Ban Scottish Firm's Violent Video Game.” June 20, 2007.

Dickinson, Roger, Olga Linne, and Ramaswami Harindranath. 1998. Approaches to Audiences: A Reader. Hodder Arnold.

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Peter Hulm is Innovative Journalism Advisor to the European Graduate School where Badiou, Baudrillard and Žižek all teach or have taught on a regular basis. He has a Ph D. from EGS, a Masters in Mass Communications from Leicester University, and a BSc of the UK’s Open University.