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Ethics of Television

Ethics of Television

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Published by: ADM on Dec 29, 2009
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02/01/2013

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Pessin
Ethics
17 February 1994
Ethics and Violence on Television
2396 words

At the same time Americans retreat into their homes in an attempt to escape the violent streets, we have begun a war against a different kind of crime. The new target of our anti­crime force is violence on television, and some Americans are battling it with such energy, it is as though they believe the defeat of the fiction were tantamount to overcoming the real. Producers, network presidents, and screenwriters are the new criminals, perpetrating assault and murder on a nightly basis, with 13 million witnesses. The issue of violence in dramatic television programming has given rise to a series of ethical questions that concern the ways television influences its audience, the way television reflects its audience, government’s role in controlling the content of a program, and the motives behind writing violence into the script.

Three main parties are involved in this discussion: the government, the public, and the television industry. The current debate centers on whether Congress should answer the call of the public and take steps to decrease the amount of violence on television. That question pre­ supposes some obligation of one party to the another. If one believes government should regu­ late, he suggests the government’s obligation to respond to the will of the people, or at least at­ tempt to protect them. If, on the other hand, he believes the government should stay out of it, he indicates his feeling that the government should allow for freedom of speech, especially in the private sector. In making even these simple judgments, the observer is employing normative claims, i.e., he is saying the government should do this, or should not do that.

Opportunities for normative claims abound in the debate over television violence. Congress must justify its legislation, the public must show moral outrage, and the television in­ dustry must defend its right to free speech. In order to achieve these goals, each party must evaluate its collective moral basis and develop a consistent way of solving ethical dilemmas.

More likely than not, the three parties have ignored or blundered through ethical decisions
about programming, and are unprepared to deal with significant ethical problems.

Despite their unreadiness, and perhaps unwillingness, the compromise that emerged suggests all three parties were able to come up with a widespread, though not necessarily uni­ versal, approach to the question of television violence. The television industry agreed to moni­ tor itself, and to encourage non­violent programming. It is now possible, in retrospect, to ana­ lyze the ethical and metaethical systems employed in the debate.

Industry Utilitarianism.The industry’s defense of itself tended toward the highly principled.

Jack Valenti’s impassioned appeals to freedom of expression and the creative enterprise were perhaps the most moving moments of last year’s Congressional hearings, but their legitimacy and sincerity can only be guessed at. Regardless of its veracity, however, Valenti’s arguments sketch out a barebones utilitarian argument for allowing the industry to program as it wishes. In this argument, the greatest good is alternately freedom of expression or aesthetic quality. The greatest number, clearly, is the 220 million or so people who see a television regularly. The utilitarian argument in this instance sets up the industry as (1) the protectors of free speech and (2) the promulgators or artistic quality. If seen only as the former, the industry could argue that whether the violence was necessary to the quality of the program was not at issue. The issue was that the industry should have the right to produce and broadcast whatever material they felt appropriate. If the government controlled the quantity of violence in Hollywood productions, they could just as easily censor the news or otherwise limit the free speech of Americans. This, to be sure, would be detrimental to all Americans, not only the producers. And that, according to the utilitarian argument, would be morally wrong. By contrast, the number of Americans harmed by violent television in its current state is considerably lower than those who would be harmed by a loss of free expression.

If the particular Hollywood spokesman chose to tone down the freedom of speech argu­
ment, he could appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of his audience, declaring that the violence is
­2­

indeed necessary to the value of a given production, and that in its attempts to control the quantity of violence, Congress would ultimately be controlling its quality. In this form of the utilitarian argument, aesthetic merit is the greatest good that would be denied to the greatest number by a government overstepping its jurisdiction.

It is significant that no credible person posited that television violence, in itself, is a great good. The worth of the violence is in all argument contingent upon its context in a work of some quality or as a stand­in for freedom of speech. This might move some to intuitively object to the industry’s utilitarian argument, since that which is being debated is not really what either argument directly addresses. In other words, while Congress is raising objection to televised violence (a simple enough element to eradicate), the industry defends abstract principles like rights and beauty.

Those abstract arguments also fall apart when set against televisions recent history. The emptiness of conventional television is the same emptiness of an executive’s principles. Whenever television aims to be more than it is — simple entertainment — it is derided, short­ lived, or met with confusion. The two most significant fictional television events in the past five years were when movie makers scaled their work to the small screen, viz. David Lynch with

Twin Peaks and Oliver Stone with Wild Palms. Aesthetically inventive and unprecedented, both

failed because they aimed above the heads of the average television audience, who just wanted to laugh or dream, without having to think too much. Given that there have been only these two remarkable events recently, perhaps in all television history,1 it seems clear that high­minded ideas are only rarely a part of television in general and television violence in particular.

The best utilitarian argument the industry might construct to validate violence would be to accept the medium’s status as kitsch. If television is conceived of as nothing more than an entertainment tool, its need for social responsibility fades. This would allow entertainment

1There wasRoot s (I was only about ten when it aired), but my impression is that it was far more reality­

based than Twin Peaks and Wild Palms. The success ofRoot s, I think, came about because it used television for what it does best: narration. Lynch and Stone were so caught up in paranoid plot construction, they were unable to express anything clearly, even when they wanted to.

­3­

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