Well, I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record on this point, but it never ceases to amaze me how some policymakers get away with speaking so poorly of parents during policy debates about media content. First, you will recall that, in late April, the Federal Communications Commission released a report calling for the regulation of violent video content on the grounds that parental control tools and efforts were ineffective. (For details, see my essay: “FCC Violence Report Concludes that Parenting Doesn’t Work.”) Then, just last week, at a House Commerce hearing on “The Images Kids See on the Screen,” Rep. Ed Markey and several other members of the committee argued that parents just couldn’t cope with modern media and that government needed to step in on their behalf. But nothing could top the performance of Sen. John Rockefeller at today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “The Impact of Media Violence on Children.”
Sen. Rockefeller opened the hearing with a verbal tirade “repeatedly bashing TV and its executives as though they were Dan Aykroyd’s Irwin Mainway SNL character out to sell bags-o-glass to unsuspecting kids,” as John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable noted. Sen. Rockefeller, who is planning to soon introduce legislation to regulate “excessively violent” television programming, said that the industry is being “cowardly” and “debasing our culture” in a “never-ending race to the bottom.”
Rockefeller went on to say that the industry was “blaming parents” for not dealing with the problem of objectionable content with private controls and methods instead of censoring content themselves before it ever got on air. “Parents do not want more tools,” he argued, “they want the content off the air.” Of course, that point is debatable as I’ll discuss more below.
But what Rockefeller said next was really telling. After claiming that Americans don’t want more tools to handle this on their own, Rockefeller launched into full-blown attack mode against parents and the act of parenting: “There are many parents who cannot make these things work, or they are just not there [in the home]… Americans don’t know technology well,” he said. And, most shockingly, Rockefeller concluded that, “Unless you can show that parental responsibility works, I think we have to try something else.”
I don’t know about you, but there’s something deeply insulting and troubling about that statement. As I mentioned above, Sen. Rockefeller suggested that industry is “blaming parents,” but it sounds to me like he’s the one blaming them and actually going further by accusing them of not being able to do their jobs.
Regardless, what are we to make of Rockefeller’s other contention that “Parents do not want more tools,” he argued, “they want the content off the air.” There are three problems with this argument.
First, as I discussed in great detail in this essay just yesterday, many recent polls confirm what we already know to be true: Parents are parenting. They are learning to cope with new media realities and adapt to them to make sure they can monitor and control their children’s media experiences. For example, the TV Watch poll released just this week revealed that 73 percent of parents monitor what their children watch, including 87 percent of parents whose children are ages 0-10. Also, 86 percent of parents believe that more parental involvement is the best way to keep kids from seeing what they shouldn’t see on television. Those results seem to strongly contradict Sen. Rockefeller’s contention that parental responsibility doesn’t work.
Second, we know that it cannot possibly be the case, as the Senator suggests, that all parents “just want the content off the air.” After all, I’m a parent of two young kids and some of the things that Sen. Rockefeller wants censored are my favorite shows and they are among the most popular shows on television today. (ex: CSI, The Shield, Rescue Me). Tens of millions of American parents like my wife and me tune into these shows each week and enjoy them. Are they fit for kids? Of course not, and like most other parents, my wife and I take steps to ensure our kids cannot watch them. But I think the millions of American parents who enjoy those programs would be deeply insulted by Senator Rockefeller’s suggestion that we all “just want the content off the air.” That’s a decision for us to make for ourselves, Senator.
Finally, not every home in America has kids in residence but the Senator wants to impose regulations that would treat everyone as if they were children. The majority of U.S. households, in fact, are made up entirely of adults. According to the Census Bureau, only one-third of U.S. households include children under the age of 18. Under Sen. Rockefeller’s logic, however, we should be treating all homes as if children were present and regulating television so that it is only fit for a child. I don’t know about the rest of you parents out there, but I can’t live on just Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers alone!
Sen. Rockefeller is certainly free to get on his moral high-horse and preach to us about his vision for television: highly sanitized and apparently full of only documentaries and nature programs (just make sure none of them are about war or animals fighting each other to the death!) But it is quite another thing to mandate that vision from above using the heavy hand of government regulation as the Senator is threatening.
If the Senator wants to take a more constructive (and constitutional) approach, he might want to consider doing more to help educate parents about the many excellent parental control tools at their disposal. (Hey Senator.. send them my book! It has over 100 pages of parental control tools, tips and methods to help them.) Heck, if he doesn’t think that’s enough, then he can propose government subsidies for TiVos, personal video recorders, DVD players and VCRs so that parents can perfectly tailor TV programming to their own values!
But Senator, don’t you dare suggest that all America parents are incompetent or that we all want media censored to be in line with your values. That is deeply insulting and blatantly un-American.