WASHINGTON - Nearly a half-century ago, a Senate subcommittee spent months investigating a possible connection between juvenile delinquency and the mass media.
Lawmakers focused on the allegedly deleterious effects of comic books, especially those featuring crime and horror stories with illustrations of gruesome violence. Child-development experts and many parents contended that such comic books - with names such as "With Knife in Hand" and "Heartless" - were major contributors to youth violence.
After extensive hearings, the subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D., Tenn.), concluded that comic books were just one factor in juvenile delinquency. But the lawmakers noted: "Neither the comic-book industry nor any other sector of the media of mass communications can absolve itself from responsibility for the effects of its product.
"Attempts to shift all responsibility to parents are unjustified.... Parents have a right to expect that the producers of materials that may influence their children's thinking will exercise a high degree of caution."
Fast forward to the year 2001. Congress is once again grappling with the issue of media violence and its effect on children. This time the issue is not the violence portrayed in comic books, but adult-rated violence in television, movies, music, computer games, and video games marketed to children.
As in 1955, the crux of the matter is how far can - or should - Congress go in pushing the entertainment industry to regulate its products? In 1955 the Senate subcommittee stated strongly that it wanted to see the comic-book industry regulate itself.
If the industry did not respond, the subcommittee warned, "Then other ways and means must - and will - be found to prevent our nation's young from being harmed by crime and and horror comic books."
In the 107th Congress convened in January, many lawmakers champion the idea of self-regulation, saying entertainment industries are protected by the First Amendment and must police themselves.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.) prefers to let the various industries regulate themselves. But most of the industries - with the exception of the video-game industry - have not been successful at convincing their members to adopt stricter marketing codes, Senator Lieberman said.
"This half-hearted response is unacceptable," Senator Lieberman said. "It shows real disregard for the growing burdens of raising children in a multichannel universe. I had hoped that the entertainment industries would meet this challenge voluntarily, for self-regulation is the optimal solution. But if they are not going to act, we will."
As a result, Senator Lieberman is preparing to introduce legislation this spring that would allow the Federal Trade Commission to bring legal action against companies that continue to market adult-rated products to children.
Senator Lieberman's legislation is just one facet of the ongoing congressional spotlight on Hollywood. The effect of media violence on children was a hot topic last year on Capitol Hill and in the presidential campaign, spurred by a scathing FTC report.
The FTC concluded that there is "pervasive and aggressive marketing of violent movies, music, and electronic games" to children and urged entertainment industries to develop and enforce stricter codes against targeting such marketing to children.
But the FTC noted that "self-regulatory programs can work only if the concerned industry associations actively monitor compliance and ensure that violations have consequences."
The Senate Commerce Committee, which held well-publicized hearings last year, is expected to respond to the FTC's recommendation for continuous oversight by holding more hearings this spring.
This time, the focus will be on how well the entertainment industries have delivered on their promises to the committee last fall to develop codes against marketing violence to children.
The upcoming hearings will be fueled by the release of an updated report by the FTC on the issue. In addition, the committee is expected to delve into how to involve the retailers who sell music, computer games, and video games to children.
As in 1955, lawmakers point to the responsibility of parents to help determine what kind of music their children listen to, the movies they see, and the computer and video games they play. But they agree that parents can't do it alone.
"Parents could use a lot more help," Senator Lieberman said, echoing the 1955 subcommittee report statement: "The simple fact remains that all this constant vigilance on the part of parents and civic organizations would not have been necessary if the persons responsible for producing and distributing comic books had exercised a measure of self-restraint and common decency."
It's not clear yet what action - if any - Congress will take. In 1955, the comic-book industry eventually did respond to congressional warnings, developing a strict code for comic books marketed to children. The Comics Code Authority was intended to promote "good taste and decency" and had 41 provisions covering areas such as crime, violence, horror, sex, marriage, and nudity.
The code prohibited the negative portrayal of authority figures, stated that divorce should never be treated as a good outcome, and required that women be drawn realistically, "without any exaggeration of physical qualities."
The code forced many comic-book publishers out of business, and the industry's market influence shrank. Alternative comics, called "comix," that flouted the code, began springing up in the 1960s, and by the 1980s, few comic-book publishers were abiding by the code.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in comic books. Illustrated novels, called graphic novels, have become popular. Last year, a picture book featuring comics for children titled Little Lit was a best-seller. A second volume is in the works.
After the Comics Code was adopted, Congress dropped the issue of comic books, moving on to look at adult-rated content and violence on television programs shown at times when children are watching.
Although broadcasters are supposed to limit sex-related content and vulgarities to programs shown after 10 p.m., that rule is not always followed.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves, does investigate complaints against broadcasters who air adult-rated content during prime time. But critics contend the FCC is a toothless tiger that rarely enforces the rules.
Broadcasters themselves point to the development of the V-chip, which allows parents to block objectionable programs, as well as the system of ratings for television shows. But recent studies show that few parents use either the V-chip or the ratings system.
Some legislators are pushing for broadcasters to develop a voluntary "good programming" code that would ensure that adult-rated content and violence is not shown during the hours when children are watching.
To that end, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D., S.C.) has introduced a bill that would require the FCC to establish a "safe harbor" for children from violent TV programs at a specified time each day.
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