Exploitive movies, music play role in violent culture

My hard-earned reputation as a left-winger may be called into question today as I reveal a distinctly conservative aspect to my world view.

It turns out I'm in general agreement with old fogies and Christian groups that condemn those elements of the entertainment media that glorify violence and denigrate women.

Furthermore, I believe movies, music lyrics and video games that idealize the so-called "thug life" influence some young people to imitate the actions they hear about on their iPods or see on the screen.

I saw a fine film the other day, the Oscar-winning "Juno," but I left the theater thinking about a preview for an upcoming movie about teenage fighting called "Never Back Down."

This flick is about kids who fight for fun, presumably to spice up the monotony of modern suburban life. The main character is a kid who unwittingly attends a party where these fights occur, and proceeds to get his butt royally kicked by the recognized local champ of backyard fisticuffs. Meanwhile, the other kids at the party crowd around and cheer.

Rather than finding new friends, the defeated boy decides to undergo some martial arts training to become a better fighter so he can go back and get revenge on the tough guy who humiliated him.

It's entirely possible the Hollywood ending to this movie will suggest that bare-knuckle brawling is a poor excuse for a pastime, and that teenage boys would be better off walking barefoot on the beach with their girlfriends. But for many young viewers, the bloody fight scenes will be what they remember, and some of them may want to replicate what they see in the theater.

My question is this: Knowing what we all know about the prevalence of youth violence, crime and delinquency in this country, what self-respecting studio head green-lighted this movie? Is there no sense of responsibility that accompanies the quest for profit?

The same question should be asked of music companies that produce CDs by gangster rappers who sing about shooting people, dealing drugs and treating women like prostitutes. The claim that these performers are simply reflecting life on the mean streets of urban America is, for 90 percent of the material, a joke. Most of it's not art, it's commerce.

The same question should be asked of video game producers who create games in which players, operating in a very realistic-looking digital environment, have free rein to shoot police officers, innocent bystanders and anyone else who gets in the way of achieving a high score. These games appeal to our basest instincts.

Besides coarsening the culture, these forms of media influence some kids to act in destructive ways. Unlike many of my liberal brethren, I refuse to casually brush aside the evidence that media influence behavior. It happens in positive and negative ways, and we all know it.

It may not be possible to directly link violence-glorifying media to the recent shootings near Palo Verde High School and Gibson Middle School. But the fact that these teenage boys were carrying around loaded handguns and had no qualms about putting them to use on public streets strongly suggests "thug life" influences in their lives.

Here is where I part ways with some conservatives -- and even some liberals -- on this issue: I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that the government should get involved in censoring movies, music or video games. Our First Amendment rights are very clear and should not be infringed. Neither the right nor the left should be trying to legislate freedom of speech.

But this constitutional right means we also are free to speak out against these media creations, and we are free to boycott them as well. We parents have every right to tell our kids these items are not welcome in our homes. Sadly, a whole lot of us are not drawing or enforcing these lines now.

Unfortunately, most Americans who may agree with me on this issue do not bother to speak up, and those who do tend to hamper the cause more than help it. For example, last month a Texas-based group called Teen Mania Ministries held a rally in Times Square in New York City to protest explicit language and imagery in music, film, etc. Rebecca Bjerke, a 21-year-old participant, explained to a reporter why she was there: "To just stand up and say, 'We're tired of all the filth.' ... You know, music and songs that are constantly so negative -- just making us numb to the abuse of alcohol and drugs and sex and pornography and all that kind of stuff."

The problem is not these well-meaning kids in Times Square. The problem for the movement is that it's almost always Christian-based. Fundamentalist ministers and born-again believers lead the attack, and typically focus first on sexual issues, not gun violence. Other people alarmed by the dangerous effects of irresponsible media don't want to be associated with the Christian right's crusades.

For many of us, it's not about biblical beliefs or prudish notions of morality, it's about people getting killed.

Juan Williams, well-known correspondent for National Public Radio and political analyst for Fox News, wrote a book in 2006 called "Enough," in which he examines the political and cultural issues holding back black America. Williams condemns the worst elements of rap music and chides African-American leaders, and black women in particular, for not speaking out against it.

"The consequence of black leaders failing to speak out against the corruption of rap for all those years resulted in real damage to the most vulnerable of black America -- poor children, boys and girls, often of broken homes," Williams writes. "As a group, they were desperately searching for black pride in a sea of images being thrown at them on TV, on the radio, on the Internet, and in advertising. What those children found was a larger-than-life rapper who was materialistic, sexist and violent, and used the word 'nigger' as a casual description of all black people. It was a musical minstrel show that would have been a familiar delight to 19th century slave owners."

The Palo Verde and Gibson shootings have generated (mostly) healthy discussion in the community about causes and solutions. There is not one cause or one solution. But it is possible to identify several probable causes and start exploring ways to address them, if not solve them.

Entertainment media of the types discussed here are one cause, I believe. And the solution, in part, is for a wider spectrum of the public to recognize the toxic nature of this dreck and refuse to support it.

We parents must develop a better understanding of the difference between "No Country for Old Men" and teen flicks that depict sadism and revenge as cool. We need to draw a clearer distinction between music of artistic value and the misogynist ravings of Snoop Dogg. We need to understand that for some 12-year-old boys, untold hours playing dehumanizing, violent video games just might have an effect on the way they deal with the real world.

And you don't have to be a Baptist preacher to complain about it.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.