Hollywood is facing new scrutiny over the impact of violence in entertainment as part of the national debate in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
To be sure, the harshest criticism has fallen on the gun lobby, but as the initial shock of the tragedy has passed, politicians and pundits are renewing familiar criticism of the entertainment industry for videogames and movies that they say — without particular evidence — propagates violence.
New York Sen. Jay Rockefeller this week introduced a bill calling for an examination of the effect of violent videogames.
“Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it,” Rockefeller (below) said in a statement. “They believe that violent videogames are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians and psychologists know better.”
Meanwhile Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly used his primetime show to harangue director Quentin Tarantino for portraying “gratuitous violence” in his upcoming “Django Unchained.”
While the debate over the impact of fantasy violence has become a predictable part of the conversation in the wake of mass shootings, there are few signs that tangible change ever follows.
“When something like this happens, it’s always easier to look at violence in the media than real causes because you can put your finger on it,” Michael Morgan, a psychology professor at University of Massachusetts who studies the effects of media, told TheWrap. “Who will say there should be more violence in the media? It’s an easy target.”
It’s an evergreen target, as well. Many of Hollywood’s greatest successes are action-driven film franchises, such as “The Avengers,” and the same goes for videogames in which weapon-heavy games, such as “Call of Duty,” reign.
Hollywood has responded to the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history by postponing premieres, canceling parties and not airing certain TV episodes that depict violence. It has not delayed any movie openings, as happened after a July mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
“Hollywood knows that there are people it will never convince, but it has to positively influence the fence-sitters and make them think it can reduce damage,” Jonathan Bernstein, president of a crisis management company, told TheWrap. “It’s a communication battle for influence at a visceral level. If Hollywood doesn’t do something, it takes far more damage.”
All those actions cost studios money and publicity, but the real question is whether the entertainment industry will need to consider more serious reform of its films, shows and games.
The industry itself has been largely silent on the subject, but executives and producers told TheWrap that people are proceeding cautiously. However, none expect long-term change.
The Motion Picture Association of America CEO Chris Dodd, a former senator for the grieving state of Connecticut, issued a statement on Thursday offering Hollywood’s support:
“Those of us in the motion picture and television industry want to do our part to help America heal," he said. “We stand ready to be part of the national conversation.”
The Entertainment Software Association also spoke out, noting that years of research show no connection between playing violent video games and actual violence.
Social scientists are divided on the matter. Most recognize that violent entertainment increases aggressiveness, but they differ on whether that is the cause of mass shootings.
Most believe there are too many forces at play to blame just one.
"Violent and aggressive behavior is very complicated; it's not determined by a single cause," Brad Bushman, a psychology professor at Ohio State who researches the media's impact on society, told TheWrap. "Many factors work together to influence it. Mass shootings are so rare, they're impossible to predict."
From mental illness to social inequality to education, myriad factors influence potential shooters.
Since the events in Newtown, Mass., Obama has been outspoken about his desire to enact real reform, which has many thinking gun control. Much of the discussion since the incident has been around that subject, but Obama’s words also bring hope to those wanting Hollywood to change its tune.
"Hollywood is a convenient target for those that don't want to deal with real social problems of violence — economic inequality, institutional racism and the easy availability of guns," Morgan said. "It's easier to take on TV networks than the National Rifle Association."
The question is whether any of this outrage will last. In the past, uproar has been substantial but ephemeral.
After the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, CBS chairman Les Moonves acknowledged Hollywood's responsibility. “Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to with [the massacre] is an idiot," Moonves said at the time.
After a shooting this July in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” movies again came under fire, particularly given the setting.
“In six months are we going to be right back where we were last Thursday?,” Dan Isett, director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, asked. “Historically it’s been more temporary. You may remember in the aftermath of Columbine what Les Moonves said. No one would argue there’s less violent programming or fewer violent video games.”
Yet Morgan argued that there is greater tolerance of violence on television and in films than there has ever been. While outrage was common in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, it has waned since the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996, which instituted the little-used v-chip and parental guidance for television.
“It’s been fairly quiet since then,” Morgan said. “Nobody wants to take it on. It’s very dicey given constitutional protections of the First Amendment.”
Brent Lang contributed to this story.