Violence on Television,
Public Health,
Labor in the Margins

excerpted from the book

Through the Media Looking Glass

Decoding Bias and Blather in the News

by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Common Courage Press, 1995, paper

Violence on Television

Surprising Reasons for Violence on the Screen
September 28, 1994

Why is American television so violent?

Forty years after Sen. Estes Kefauver convened the first congressional hearings on the subject, the easy answer is that Americans want to see a lot of violence on the tube. Easy, but erroneous.

The idea that viewers just get what they want "is the biggest fallacy in our business," says maverick TV journalist Linda Ellerbee. "That's the argument that people on our side use to put dreck on the air... The American public didn't ask for trash television. They'll watch it the same way we go out and watch a fire."

In fact, violent TV shows do not draw the biggest audiences. The trade magazine Broadcasting ~ Cable noted in 1993 that "the most popular programming is hardly violent, as anyone with a passing knowledge of Nielsen ratings will tell you."

So how come, if you flip the dial tonight, you're likely to see so much gratuitous violence on programs ranging from "real life" cop shows to made-for-TV movies and weekly series? During the past ten years, well over half of prime-time programs have been suffused with violence. Why?

The surprising truth is that violent TV programs are not more popular but they are more profitable. Much more. Two big reasons: They're cheaper to make, and they're hot export items.

Top creative talent costs money. Well-written scripts, adept acting and sensitive editing are likely to be expensive. It's cheaper to blow up cars in chase scenes and pay for fake blood.

Often, in the United States, the murder-and-mayhem formula does poorly at the box office and in the ratings. However, even if the violent products don't sell very well here, that's just a start.

"The profitable marketing of film and TV programs is increasingly dependent on reaching a global audience," explains longtime researcher George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communications based in Philadelphia.

Investors find that violent screen exports are apt to rake in profits overseas. There's no problem with cross-cultural gaps; whatever the country, viewers get the point. "Everyone understands an action movie," says the producer of the "Die Hard 2" film, in which 264 people get killed. "If I tell a joke, you may not get it, but if a bullet goes through the window, we all know how to hit the floor, no matter the language."

The "Die Hard 2" producer, Larry Gordon, says that syndication firms want "action"-a euphemism for violence-because it "travels well around the world."

Gerbner acknowledges that "there is blood in fairy tales, gore in mythology, murder in Shakespeare. But not all violence is alike." In Televisionland USA, "happy violence" dominates- "produced on the dramatic assembly, swift, painless and often spectacular, designed not to upset but to deliver the audience to the next commercial in a mood to buy."

Due to public outcries, violence on dramatic network TV programs has dipped a bit during the last three years. Meanwhile, it has escalated on syndicated "real" crime shows.

TV violence remains much more pervasive now than it was back in 1954, when Sen. Kefauver chaired hearings of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. And today, politicians and commentators spend a lot more time decrying it.

But the issue is often posed in unhelpful terms: Do violent TV shows and movies lead to high rates of murder, rape and other violent crime? Should Congress legislate restrictions on the violent content of television?

While researchers debate its impacts, few doubt that routine TV violence-particularly the type that presents violent retribution as a pain-free solution to problems-is corrosive to our society.

At the same time, scapegoating television for the crime problem helps elected officials avoid more basic factors-such as the day-in day-out institutionalized violence of poverty and the inadequate funding for education, housing and jobs.

As for government action against the TV industry, the remedy is not content restrictions. Instead, we need antitrust challenges to the fewer and fewer mega-companies that control more and more of the "entertainment" to be found on TV, in video stores and inside theaters.

"The role of Congress, if any," Gerbner says, "is to turn its antitrust and civil rights oversight on to the centralized and globalized industrial structures and marketing strategies that impose violence on creative people and foist it on the children of the world."

The fight that needs to be waged is an anti-censorship battle. The violent drivel that fills up screens keeps crowding out better material.

Until we confront the near-monopoly power to saturate the media landscape with mindless violence, the phony blood will keep flowing in torrents, and so will the profits.


Public Health

It's Time for a Real Debate on National Health Insurance
May 12,1993

When a coalition of groups concerned about health care | held a loud public protest in midtown Manhattan on May 12 [1993], they didn't set up their picket line outside a hospital or W insurance company headquarters or government agency.

Instead, they gathered in front of the New York Times building, and their demand was simple: "Stop rationing health care news!" The protesters are angry over the fact that the newspaper's reporting routinely downplays a popular proposal-endorsed by 12 of New York City's 14 members of Congress-to overhaul the American health system: a singlepayer system of publicly-financed health care.

Poll after poll has shown that most Americans favor tax-financed national health insurance. But at the New York Times and other national media, proponents are kept at the periphery of the health care debate. They include 58 members of Congress who, on March 3 [1993], introduced a bill-"The American Health Security Act"-to establish a Canadian-style, single-payer system.

In a single-payer system, private insurance companies are basically removed from health care. Instead, the government pays all health care providers, and controls fees and costs. As in Canada, consumers would choose their own doctors-but almost never receive a hospital or doctor bill. Insurance deductibles and co-payments are also eliminated.

By eliminating administrative waste and insurance company profits, the shift to a single-payer system would cut $67 billion per year from our country's medical bill, according to the General Accounting Office-and $39 billion yearly in bureaucracy, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Of every health-care dollar spent in the U.S., 22 cents goes to administrators; in Canada, that figure is 10 cents.

A single-payer system has been endorsed by health care activists, seniors groups, labor unions and a number of regional dailies-including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A recent Times-Mirror poll found 41 percent of U.S. doctors in support.

After conducting extensive focus groups on health care, pollster Celinda Lake discovered that the more people are told about the Canadian system, "the higher the support goes." In contrast, according to Lake, working Americans found the managed competition idea "laughable."

But much of the national news coverage in recent weeks has been promoting Bill Clinton's managed competition plan as the smart, new, "politically viable" option.

News reports trumpet the "consensus" behind managed competition: big insurance companies, most doctors, conservative Republican think tanks, George Bush, conservative Democratic think tanks, Hillary Rodham Clinton-and the wise men from the "Jackson Hole Group" who've been meeting in Wyoming for years to discuss "health care reform."

In national media discourse, managed competition seems easier to tout than explain. Since no other country has ever tried such a system, it remains a complicated, untested theory.

The plan leaves the largest insurance companies in the center of the picture; after the federal government defines a minimum package of benefits, health care partnerships or superHMOs organized by insurance firms would "compete" to offer health packages. Meanwhile, giant "Health Insurance Purchasing Cooperatives" would be formed so that employers and consumers could search for the best deal. Between these behemoths would be the government, "managing the competition," grading the medical providers and trying to restrain costs.

To the protesters outside the New York Times headquarters, the news tilt toward managed competition is explained by the clout of insurance companies and medical industry firms- which are major media advertisers. And, as it happens, four members of the New York Times board of directors are also directors of major insurance companies; two are directors of pharmaceutical companies.

While it's far-fetched to hunt for a conspiracy, the imprint of the insurance industry is all over the managed competition idea. The Jackson Hole study group that originated the scheme is made up of big insurance companies like Prudential, Metropolitan Life, Aetna and Cigna, plus hospital and pharmaceutical interests. Insurers were important early contributors to Clinton's presidential campaign, and donated $850,000 to the Democratic Party (and even more to the Republicans) for the 1992 elections.

Critics dismiss managed competition as a bureaucratic hoax that should be renamed the "Insurance Industry Preservation Act." They warn that the freedom to choose one's own doctor would be eroded. They say it's absurd to leave "reform" to the Jackson Hole group of special interests who profit from the inefficient status quo.

Managed competition was the subject of a lengthy MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour discussion on May 5 [1993]. The panel was made up of three government officials-a congressman, a governor and a state health commissioner-who said the Clinton approach would lower costs, and a fourth panelist, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, who argued it would increase costs and bureaucracy. (Woolhandler founded Physicians for a National Health Program, representing thousands of doctors who support a single-payer system.)

Near the end of the discussion, anchor Robert MacNeil offered Woolhandler the last word "since you're in the minority"-to which she responded: "Robert, I'm not in a minority. Polls are showing two-thirds of the American people support government-funded national health insurance."

MacNeil then rephrased his question: "If this [managed competition] is the program that has a political consensus and the other one that you advocate [single-payer] is considered impossible politically at the moment, why are you then against the one that is viable?"

Because it won't "provide Americans with the care they need," the doctor replied.

But she could have offered another response: If much of the public supports national health insurance, and it's not debated seriously in Washington or the national media because of the power of special interests like the insurance lobby, what does that say about the health of our democracy?

That is an issue journalists should be exploring.


Media Myth Pits Clinton Against Insurance Industry
November 24, 1993

Buoyed by NAFTA's victory, the White House will now concentrate on its other major policy initiative-health care reform. We can expect mainstream news outlets to paint a picture of Bill and Hillary Clinton in mortal battle against the big bad insurance industry.

It's a vivid picture, but it distorts reality. As in the NAFTA battle, big corporations are in the president's corner.

In a much-publicized campaign aimed at whipping up populist support for the administration's health plan, Hillary Rodham Clinton blasted insurance companies opposing it. She denounced their "homey kitchen ads" airing on TV-featuring complaints from "Harry" and "Louise" about the Clinton plan. "There must be a better way," laments Louise.

"What you don't get told in the ad," charged Hillary Clinton, "is that it is paid for by insurance companies... It is time for you and every American to stand up and say to the insurance industry: 'Enough is enough, we want our health care system back!"'

The Democratic Party countered with its own ad promoting the White House plan: "The insurance companies may not like it, but the president didn't design it for them."

The rhetoric was hot-and the TV networks swallowed it hook, line and salsa. NBC's Tom Brokaw spoke of Hillary Clinton's "scathing attack on the health insurance industry." A CNN anchor declared that the administration was "engaged in something close to all-out war with the health insurance industry."

A full-blown media myth was born, with most reports omitting basic facts:

* The Health Insurance Association of America, which opposes the Clinton plan and produced the Harry and Louise ads, represents small to medium-size insurance companies. They would lose out to bigger firms under the administration's "managed competition" plan.

* The "Big Five" of health insurers-Aetna, Cigna, Metropolitan Life, Prudential and Travelers-have formed the Alliance for Managed Competition, which is sympathetic to the Clinton plan. That's because those firms, heavily invested in Health Maintenance Organizations, would be enriched by it.

* Operating through the Jackson Hole study group, the insurance giants helped draw up the managed competition blueprint, later adopted by the Clinton administration. Contrary to the Democratic Party ads, the Clinton plan was designed for-and by-big insurance interests. In a 1992 article in Health Economics magazine, Jackson Hole leaders bluntly argued that managed competition is the only way to avert a government takeover of "health care financing" and the "elimination of a multiple-payer private insurance industry."

What the Jackson Hole group feared was a Canadian-style system in which the government (the "single-payer") controls costs while paying all hospital and doctor bills. Single-payer rids health care of private insurance companies-along with costly bureaucracy, profiteering and wasteful advertising.

Despite the fact that a single-payer proposal has been endorsed by 95 members of Congress-plus groups like Consumers Union and Public Citizen-most major media have pushed it to the margins. A recent computer search found only one mention of the single-payer proposal on ABC's World News Tonight in all of 1993.

When media do mention a Canadian-style system, it's often dismissed as 'politically unrealistic." Yet according to General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office studies, only single-payer has a realistic chance of extending universal coverage without raising costs-the goal politicians claim to be seeking.

In a MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour segment about the various ads debating health care reform, anchor Margaret Warner proclaimed that "interest groups on all sides of the issue have taken to the airwaves."

Not quite.

One ad, supporting a single-payer system, has been kept off the airwaves from San Francisco to Boston to Washington, D.C. Produced by the grassroots group Neighbor to Neighbor, the ad features an engaging elderly woman, who asserts: "If we get rid of health insurance companies, we can have complete coverage for everyone for the same money. But any plan that keeps these guys in business will cost billions... To me, it's a no-brainer."

TV station managers offered a variety of excuses for rejecting the ad ("it's a call to action"; "too broad"; "undocumented"). According to Neighbor to Neighbor, one station executive candidly explained: "Many of our major advertisers are health insurers. We don't want to take any hits from the insurance companies."

While one side can't even buy its way into the debate, many news outlets offer a narrow health-care discussion pitting the Clinton plan-supported by large insurers-against smaller insurance companies that oppose it.

Something's wrong with a spectrum of debate no broader than the confines of the insurance industry.


Labor in the Margins

Cesar Chavez Obituaries Bury Media Hypocrisy
May 5, 1993

In the two weeks since renowned labor leader Cesar Chavez died, we've accumulated over a dozen obituaries from major news outlets.

The obituaries are infuriating.

They aren't maddening because of inaccuracies. Indeed, the inspiring story is recounted in factual detail: How Chavez's grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. How his parents built up a farm in Arizona but lost it during the Depression, and became migrant farm workers. How young Cesar never completed high school, but once recalled 65 elementary schools that he'd attended "for a day, a week or a few months."

As an adult, Chavez made history by successfully organizing largely immigrant, migratory farm workers-among the country's most exploited employees-into a union. His tactics borrowed from Gandhi and Martin Luther King: fasting, long marches, boycotts. He was a fearless giant at 5 feet 6 inches tall, a union president whose $5,000 salary equalled that of a farm laborer, a nonviolent leader who bowed down to no one.

So why complain about news accounts that dramatically and accurately reflect this great American life? The issue is hypocrisy.

All the glowing words that poured forth after Chavez's death stand in stark contrast to the many years of under-coverage of the people Chavez gave his life for-the workers in the fields and processing plants.

In the obits, Chavez was a "champion," a "legend," a "hero." But there is nothing heroic about news outlets that have routinely dodged the issue of exploited farm laborers.

In his obituary of Chavez, ABC anchor Peter Jennings referred to farm workers and "their pitiful wages and sometimes deplorable working conditions." Our computer search of ABC World News Tonight stories focusing on the deplorable conditions of U.S. farm workers turned up only one segment in the last 40 months.

CNN ran lengthy reports on the death of Cesar Chavez, referring to farm workers as the "most politically and socially disadvantaged." The network could have added media disadvantaged. Since Jan. 1,1990, CNN has aired only a half-dozen reports exploring the conditions of these disadvantaged; the 480-word Chavez obituary was longer than almost all of them.

The kind words about the departed hero may make reporters and TV anchors feel good, but they do nothing for the workers in the fields. What would do a lot for them is solid reporting.

It would help if media prominently, and regularly, reported that workers in the fields suffer more job-related illness than in any other industry. Several times more. And farm labor is getting more dangerous; each year, pesticide exposure affects about 300,000 workers. For most farm laborers, the low pay is accompanied by no health coverage or disability plans, no pay for sick days or overtime.

Reporting some history would also be helpful in showing the political roots of today's appalling conditions. Most Americans probably don't know that when Congress passed the landmark Wagner Act in the 1930s, sanctioning the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively with employers, agribusiness interests lobbied successfully to exclude any protections for farm workers.

In California, the advent of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in the 1960s, and passage of the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, significantly improved wages and conditions for farm workers.

But when union-ally Jerry Brown left the governor's office and was replaced by a friend of agribusiness, the state law- which required "good faith" bargaining-became a joke. Workers on hundreds of farms democratically elected the UFW to represent them, but employers simply refused to bargain- and faced absolutely no sanctions from the state.

This history is hardly debatable. It's also hardly reported. If mass media toughly scrutinized the corporations responsible for the plight of farm workers, they'd be targeting some of their biggest advertisers: produce companies, wineries, supermarket chains.

Our media culture worships celebrities, and likes to believe in David versus Goliath sagas. Since Goliath owns the big media, the death of Cesar Chavez is a perfect, and harmless, story. Journalists can show their kinship with the downtrodden and feel good about themselves as they tell the story of a real-life David, now deceased.

Not as easy for mass media to tell is why the conditions of farm workers in our country remain so abysmal. Such reporting might offend powerful interests. Goliaths would be exposed.

So when the charismatic leader of the farm workers dies, that's big news. But when his followers die due to pesticides, lousy health care and unsafe working conditions, that's not big news.

It's infuriating.

Through the Media Looking Glass

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