Why I Go To the Movies
By Bishop Joseph A. Galante
The Media is "The Other Parent" : The Reality We Face
By James P. Steyer
By Barbara Gottlieb
Why I Go To the Movies
By Bishop Joseph A. Galante
Christian leaders are often portrayed as having nothing to say about popular culture except to condemn it. John Lithgow's the Rev. Shaw Moore in that very pop culture film Footloose tears up yards of scenery trying to protect his community from rock music before a partial conversion.
People—even church leaders—seem to have forgotten the effectiveness with which the Church has interacted with popular culture to the benefit of the Gospel and the people. Maybe this has not happened as often as it could, but when it has, there have been marvelous results. The medieval mystery plays are one of the sources of the western theatrical tradition. The band of happy young people gathered around St. Philip Neri in the Oratorio discovered how to tell biblical stories and convey moral messages in musical works that came to be called "oratorios."
So when I spend a day off at the movies, I do so for rest and relaxation but also with a sense that film can be a means of conveying the Gospel, even if only by contrast, and also to discover what are the formative issues contained in films (and also television shows).
The now classic movie The Godfather (Part One) is a striking example of how sin and evil can take hold of someone who had wanted to live a good and honest life. Michael Corleone begins an ugly spiral into evil, beginning with committing murder to avenge the attack on his father's life. As he takes a more active role in his family's "business," his heart and spirit become hardened and coarsened. The dramatic juxtapositioning of sin and redemption—the series of murders of his enemies and the prayers from the ritual of baptism for his nephew—is a powerful portrayal of good and evil, of the values of a world stripped of grace contrasted with the merciful and life-giving presence of the Trinity poured out in Baptism. Those scenes toward the end of the movie are eloquent.
A recent movie The Contender for which Joan Allen received an Academy Award nomination left me with a sense of sadness and concern. Here is a movie that on the surface seems to offer the positive message that a mistake from one's past should not keep a person from being able to achieve the vice-presidency of the United States. The main character is treated in the film with great sympathy and compassion. However, I came away from the movie greatly disturbed by the strong emphasis throughout the film that promoted a woman's right to abortion. I felt that this film was a "pro-choice" propaganda piece reminiscent, for me, of so many World War II films that were intended to rally the American people to strengthen their resolve to fight the enemy. I came away wondering how many people were led to a more sympathetic support for abortion rights.
A Beautiful Mind is a powerful depiction of the tragic illness of schizophrenia and of the triumph of love (John Nash's wife), discipline, and supportive medical help over the effects of such an illness. In contrast to The Contender, A Beautiful Mind is an affirmation of life. It shows that even persons with disabilities can overcome their afflictions and make a contribution for the good of humanity. It offers hope to everyone and eloquently states that all life is priceless and that human worth and dignity do not depend on physical or emotional perfection.
Television likewise has a powerful influence in forming attitudes and values. We cannot ignore the media. They can contribute greatly to our understanding of fundamental values. The TV show Everybody Loves Raymond is a portrayal of family life that is so real with its joys and trials, with its misunderstandings and humor, with its struggles in living those fundamental relationships of family life. Unlike in many "sitcoms," religious values are offered from time to time. A show about weekly Mass attendance was humorous but very real, and occasionally the parish priest is consulted for guidance and counsel.
The West Wing deals with the political/moral issues of today. I say "political/moral" because they are often intertwined despite the protestations of those who would separate them always. While I do not always agree with the moral positions taken, I do appreciate the way in which the situations are presented.
Some may be surprised by some of these choices and ask, "Bishop, didn't that film or program have some bad language, or violence, or immoral activity?" These are important considerations. The Church does not promote any of these things. The Church has always been realistic about the existence of evil and is not surprised if its effects have been a regular subject of drama. I distinguish here from those mindless films or TV shows that pander to our lowest instincts. These are a waste of precious time and are often intended to stir base and immoral reactions. So much of how we deal with TV shows and movies requires us to be "media literate": to be able to sit with our families and friends and discuss exactly what is this film or TV show saying to us. We need to discern and make judgments about what we see and hear.
A well-crafted, well-thought-out film or TV program can be one way of gaining a sense of perspective on old problems or insights into new ones. If we ignore popular culture, we may ignore some messages from God who has never hesitated to leave them in surprising places. Furthermore, we need to be aware of how the Gospel needs to be presented so that its message may not be lost. We need to be aware of the way in which people are influenced so that our presentation of the Good News may be heard and understood.
Bishop Galante is the Coadjutor Bishop of Dallas. He also serves as Chairman of the Committee for Communications of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Media is "The Other Parent": The Reality We Face
By James P. Steyer
Children today inhabit an environment saturated and shaped by a complex "mediascape" that envelops and bombards them day and night. Roaming among TVs, VCRs, the Internet, radios, CD players, movie screens, and electronic games, kids can easily spend more time in this vast mediascape than in the real world—and, not surprisingly, far more time than they spend in direct contact with their parents. This is particularly true for low-income, at-risk children.
As child development expert T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., warns, media are really "the biggest competitor for our children's hearts and minds." According to a well-known University of Maryland study, American kids now spend 40 percent less time with their parents than kids did in the mid-sixties: just 17 hours a week total with their parents, down from 30 hours in 1965. At the same time, they spend more than double that amount of time—nearly 40 hours per week on average—staring at the tube or the computer screen, listening to the radio or CDs, and playing video games.
Ironically our society and most of our leaders have paid little attention to such a powerful influence on our children's lives. So many parents read armloads of books about babies and child care and are careful to teach their kids not to talk to strangers or wander the streets all by themselves. And yet, day after day, year after year, the major-ity of American parents let them wander alone, virtually unsupervised, through this other universe—almost completely oblivious to what they're seeing, hearing, playing with, and learning.
Think about it. If another adult spent five or six hours a day with your kids, regularly exposing them to sex, violence, and rampantly commercial values, you would forbid that person to have further contact with your children. Yet most families passively allow the media to expose kids routinely to these same behaviors—sometimes worse—and do virtually nothing about it.
Today the average American child spends more than 5.5 hours each day consuming various forms of media. Two out of three youngsters eight years and older have a television set in their own bedroom. And the great majority of families now have a computer and Internet access at home. As the statistics make clear, the media exert an enormous influence on the lives, behavior, and values of America's children, particularly those who are already most at-risk. However, we rarely recognize the ever-increasing price that society pays for letting media become "the other parent."
Loss of Innocence
The loss of innocence at too early an age is perhaps the highest price that American kids pay in this new media environment. Ever since the Hays Office began monitoring Hollywood morals in the 1920s, Americans have worried about the media's impact on "family values." But before our mass media culture became so explicit and so pervasive, before large media companies began to realize huge profits by pushing sex and sensationalism, things were different. Parents were much better able to control what their children learned about and when. But today, children are bombarded with language, messages, and images that far exceed the most outrageous forms of pop culture we previously experienced. And instead of making a social or political statement, they shock and titillate for purely commercial reasons.
In a recent two-week survey of TV shows by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than two-thirds of the shows that aired in what used to be the "family hour"—from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.—
contained sexual content inappropriate for kids. And this was only broadcast television, not the more extreme content routinely available on cable. This constant and overwhelming exposure to various sexual messages is coming at a time when splintered families, the decline in organized religion, and struggling public schools have left many kids without other clear messages when it comes to sexual behavior and values. Should parents be the first line of defense? Absolutely. But the media has some serious responsibility, too, especially those who are using publicly owned airwaves to make billions of dollars.
Raised on Violence
Another price our children and our society pay is a tolerance and a taste for violence. More than a thousand scientific studies have shown that over time, exposure to violence in the media results in desensitization, fear, and increased aggression. The American Psychological Association has stated it plainly: "The accumulated research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior." The Surgeon General, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree.
Today repeated exposure to media violence can start at frighteningly young ages. The average preschooler watches well over 20 hours of television and videos a week, and more than 90 percent of programs during children's prime viewing hours feature violence. By the time they enter middle school, American kids have seen 8,000 killings and 100,000 more acts of violence on TV. Again, that's only on broadcast television—not violent video games, movies, music, or the frequent excesses on cable.
Captives of the Free Market
Commercial exploitation is another price that America's children pay from the time they are in diapers. Consumerism among kids is at an all-time high. With hundreds of companies armed with sophisticated studies and the latest focus group research, targeting kids from the cradle through high school, many parents are frequently taken aback by the consumeristic impulses of children. These tendencies are driven by the same imperative—the current media industry's single-minded focus on the bottom line, which has its worst expression when it specifically targets kids.
Abandoned by Our Public Representatives
With the ever-increasing influence of media in our society, it is important to ask who is looking out for the interest of the public and nurturing the healthy growth of future generations? The American public owns the airwaves and much of the other resources on which large media empires have been built. Shouldn't there be carefully considered regulations that protect kids and require huge media conglomerates to operate in the public interest when it comes to our youngest citizens? As everyone recognizes, children are not equipped with the same judgment and discernment as adults. They need guidance, education, and special rules to keep them from being damaged or exploited. We recognize this in virtually every sphere of American life. Yet the current media world has largely stripped away the very rules created both to protect children and to enhance their lives, leaving them almost entirely to the profit-driven manipulations of a largely unregulated free market. As Reed Hundt, former chair of the Federal Communications Commission has said, "Market values aren't necessarily family values."
In the end, it's up to each of us as parents, religious communities, and as concerned citizens to stand firm and change this reality. We all need to work together to make the media's impact on children a critically important focus in our nation, in our communities, and in our homes.
James P. Steyer is the author of The Other Parent . . . How The Media Shapes Kids' Lives due to be published in May 2002 by Pocket Books / Simon & Schuster.
By Barbara Gottlieb
Want to know what young people are up to? Try logging on to the Internet. From elementary school on up, kids and youth are turning to the Internet in record numbers for information and ideas, and to express themselves. What they're seeing and saying may surprise you—and the surprise may be bad or good.
We've all heard that the Internet can be a dangerous place; risks like pornography and predation are real. But did you know that young people are also going online to volunteer in their communities, make donations to charities, and even register to vote? The Internet has become their bridge to the knowledge, values, and experiences that they need to become active citizens.
Parents, teachers, and other adults can help young users enjoy the wonderful resources available on the Internet, while avoiding its potential for harm. Some protection is offered by software that can filter out profanity, pornography, and hate sites. But the software is imperfect—missing some targets and blocking other sites whose content is helpful, like medical sites. What else is needed?: direct adult involvement, dialogue, and awareness. For information on keeping kids safe online, see www.getnetwise.org or www.safekids.com. Talk to kids about what the Internet offers and what they need to be wary of. Put the computer in a highly visible place and check in periodically. With younger children, sit beside them when they are exploring the Internet. You can learn a lot from each other.
The world wide web is heavily commercial, and there's a "hidden agenda" behind many commercial websites. Their glitzy graphics, games, and celebrities mask serious business: selling products to children and youth, and collecting "market data" on the tastes and preferences of young consumers. Many marketing and data-collection practices overstep the old lines that separated advertising from content. Some invade personal privacy. Because these practices are too sophisticated for young viewers to understand, the law now prohibits commercial websites from collecting personal information from children under 13. For more information on protecting children's privacy online, check out the Center for Media Education (www.kidsprivacy.org). Just as importantly, look for sites whose hidden purpose isn't sales. The American Library Association's list of "700+ great sites for kids" at www.ala.org/parents/ is a good place to start.
For teens and young adults, the click of a mouse can hook them up with resources for community participation and creativity. At a site like www.servenet.org, you can browse among opportunities to volunteer—in your town or across the United States. Can you coach a sport? Work with kids? Be a companion? Cook a meal? Then the world needs you. Go to SERVEnet's "Get involved" page and click on the "Find an opportunity" menu. Then, type in your zip code. You'll get a list of nearby organizations that are looking for volunteers. A few more clicks can bring you information on the organization you choose and a link to its website, where you may be able to read about real-life experiences of volunteers, get detailed information on what volunteers do, and learn how to apply to join them.
Giving to charity is another way to improve our communities and serve the needy. Young people can support youth-led development projects around the world or help support schools for children living in extreme poverty; for example, at www.netaid.org, where online giving is simple and there's abundant information on projects to support. After the September 11 attacks, many youth have donated to disaster relief, U.S. charities, and Afghan refugee relief through www.networkforgood.org.
Young people also have views and opinions—and can use the Internet to sound off, learn more, or influence policy. At www.dosomething.org, high school students can organize projects to address issues in their local communities. Want to learn how to start a petition, organize a protest, join a walkout or sit-in, or testify before Congress? In the "Take Action" section of www.youthnoise.com, there's a tool kit with step-by-step advice for responsible action. And voting? The nonpartisan www.generationvote.com can register American youth online.
Growing up is not easy in today's complicated, multicultural world. Check out the websites that address those issues head-on, helping young people accept diversity and practice tolerance. Try UNICEF's "Voices of Youth" (www.unicef.com/voy) or Stop the Hate (www.stopthehate.org). These and similar sites encourage self-expression, welcome participants with varied backgrounds, respect differing perspectives, and treat participants with courtesy, even when they disagree. Kid stuff? No—democracy in action. Find it on the Internet.
Barbara Gottlieb is deputy director of the Center for Media Education (www.cme.org).