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Violence in the Media

Searching for a Jewish perspective on a sticky subject

by Brad Pomerance

January 6, 2000 | 7:00 pm

When 20th Century Fox released the controversial movie "Fight Club" this fall, they took a gamble that the public would flock to a film that depicted self-selected alienated young men taking out their pent-up anger by beating up on one another. Having cost a reported $68 million just to produce, the film is only anticipated to gross a mere $35 million at the box office domestically.

As demonstrated by the lackluster performance of "Fight Club," the public knows how to self-censor films that may be overly violent. Still, with every act of senseless violence that rocks our nation, Hollywood is increasingly blamed. And just when the studios begin to breathe a collective sigh of relief that the punishing rhetoric will end, another random act of violence rattles the country -- and Hollywood is made the scapegoat.

While there is no doubt that the big screen often glorifies violence, there is less agreement on ways to minimize the amount of mayhem in the movies.

Recently, some members of the Jewish community who make their living writing for Hollywood ventured to answer this question. The Writers' Torah Study Group held a symposium entitled "Violence In The Media: A Jewish Response."

As David Weiss, a screenwriter whose credits include "The Rugrats Movie" and "All Dogs Go To Heaven," opened the panel, he proclaimed that it would be "absurd" to pinpoint "the Jewish response" to violence in the media.

Rather, he asserted that there were many different Jewish responses to this phenomenon. While Weiss may be correct that the Jewish community has yet to coalesce around a single response, if any viewpoint carried the day with members of the creative community both on the panel and in the audience, it was the notion that the Jewish community should unify behind one response -- government, stay out.

During the symposium, Stephen Rohde, president of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union, asked the panel whether there was a Jewish counterpart to the freedom of speech protection found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Rabbi Levi Meier responded that while Jewish law does not per se provide that government should not impinge on free speech rights, our Creator has endowed us with free will. Rabbi Meier later cited Deuteronomy's passage that "I set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life." The Talmud similarly pronounces that "all is forgiven, but free will is given." The corollary to this concept -- that we have been given free will to make our own personalized choices regarding the entertainment we create and consume -- was subsequently championed by panelist Bruce Sallan, president of Davis Entertainment, who exclaimed, "it's our choice as human beings and as Jews."

While many in the Jewish community are as passionate as Sallan about this stance, others are not so willing to take a completely hands-off approach.

For example, Arlene Sarner, a screenwriter who penned "Peggy Sue Got Married," and "Blue Sky," noted that while she "does not agree with censorship," she asked "what about self-censorship?" In fact, she indicated that she has made the choice that her writing "would never include violence." Nevertheless, her decision remains a laudable exercise of her free will and one that was not mandated by the government.

In Washington, various federal entities are spearheading separate investigations into violence in the media that may result in such mandates.

President Clinton has asked the Office of the Surgeon General to investigate the impact of violent programming on children. As part of the pending juvenile justice bill in Congress, we may witness the creation of "The National Commission on Youth Violence," intended to evaluate popular culture's impact on our nation's teens.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) had been trying to garner support for a special Senate inquiry on "violent and vulgar" entertainment entitled "The Senate Committee on American Culture." Although his attempt to form such a committee failed, he has been pushing to create a different body called "The Task Force on the State of American Society."

Potentially more meddling is the ongoing inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) into violence in the media. The FTC has already asked to review the Motion Picture Association's ratings board files. Now, the FTC has set its eyes on documents prepared by the major studios that outline their marketing strategies. While the government couches these investigations as a way to combat the marketing of violent fare to children, the consequences of the government riffling through studio files seem obvious and chilling.

These practices would only seem to intimidate Hollywood into producing entertainment products that line up with the government's slanted view of the world. How else can Weiss or Sallan or Sarner interpret these investigations as anything other than a roundabout way to discourage their creative freedom?

Robert Avrech, a screenwriter best known for "Body Double" and "A Stranger Among Us," noted that if you are concerned as a parent about the effects of violent programming, you should take responsibility for what your children are watching. You do not need the government to investigate or legislate what you or your children watch on television or see in the movie theaters.

The last time Hollywood was investigated in this way, the blacklist was formed and Joe McCarthy destroyed countless lives. It is not such a stretch to envision the Office of the Surgeon General, the National Committee on Youth Violence, the Task Force on the State of American Society or the Federal Trade Commission devising blacklists of producers and writers who create what they subjectively deem to be violent entertainment.

Will the Jewish community exercise its collective free-will and oppose the efforts of a government that would rather dictate the type of entertainment we create and consume? What should the Jewish response to violence in the media be? Government, stay out.


Entertainment lawyer Brad Pomerance is a correspondent for "Larry Mantel's Airtalk" on KPCC.


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