August 6, 2013

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s pet project — fighting violent media — just got a shot in the arm from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (because those three seem like perfect complements…), which “advanced” his legislation directing the National Academy of Sciences to study the effects of violent media on children.

Rockefeller’s bill — the “Violent Content Research Act of 2013” — also drags the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services along for the ride, which indicates the end result of this study is going to be some form of regulation, First Amendment or no.

Why the country needs redundancy in studies of violent media is something only Rockefeller knows for sure. The president himself ordered the Centers for Disease Control to study the effects of violent media on children shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, although the president’s request also tasked researchers with looking for a link to gun violence.

Both studies are looking for something that hasn’t been conclusively proven to date: violent video games and media make people more violent. Rockefeller has his own ideas, ones which hopefully won’t skew the results. For the past half-dozen years, Rockefeller has made a handful of efforts to regulate or otherwise curtail violent media, to this point mainly concentrating on broadcasters. Every attempt to date has been shot down, mainly due to First Amendment concerns.

But the Sandy Hook shooting breathed new life into Rockefeller’s media-controlling aspirations. One week after the shooting, he fired off a “concerned” press release that made the following claim:

As parents, research confirms what we already know – these violent images have a negative impact on our children’s wellbeing.

But research doesn’t confirm this. Perhaps these two new studies will find a link between violent media and violence, but to date, research hasn’t proven there’s a link. Hopefully, this research will confirm what seems to be obvious — that violent video games and media do not alone turn a person violent.

Lobbying groups for broadcasters and a spokesperson for the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) both issued statements welcoming the new research, with the ESA pointing out that the FTC once again has recognized the voluntary ESRB program as the “best in the entertainment sector.”

With Rockefeller already having decided that violent media is a problem, it will be interesting to see what his reaction will be if this research comes to the same conclusions many others have. He clearly harbors a desire to clean up the airwaves (and beyond) and there aren’t many things more stubborn than a politician with a headful of bad conclusions.

Unfortunately for those on the receiving end of the scrutiny, they’re facing more than one such politician. The bill’s co-sponsors include Sen. Coburn and Sen. Blumenthal, both of whom might be remembered as being in the select group of 18 senators who voted for the PROTECT IP Act back when it was in its nascent, most damaging form. Clearly, both are in favor of regulating free speech. (Or, at the very least, punishing the internet to protect the movie industry.)

Of these two, Blumenthal is the greater concern. While at his post as the Attorney General of Connecticut, Blumenthal waged a grandstanding war against Craigslist and Backpage for hosting escort ads, as well as attacking Myspace and Facebook for their supposedly “inadequate” tracking of sex offenders. (This despite Myspace handing over a list of 90,000 names to Blumenthal.)

Blumenthal also filed an amicus brief (siding with the state of California in its attempt to regulate video games) with the Supreme Court arguing for the ban of violent video games, despite 10 states having already struck down such attempts as unconstitutional. In his brief, Blumenthal made some vastly ignorant claims about the video game industry’s “inaction,” suggesting it “follow the lead” set by the MPAA with its rating system, somehow ignoring (or not realizing) the fact that the ESRB has had a ratings system in place for years and a voluntary enforcement system that routinely outperforms movie theatres (and DVD retailers) in preventing minors from purchasing M-rated games.

Like the industries mentioned above, I too support more studies into the effects (or lack thereof) of violent media. My issue isn’t with the study, it’s with the people calling for it and, more specifically, the timing. Both of these requested studies were announced shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, giving them the reactionary sheen of a witch hunt.

If these groups are allowed to do the research unimpeded by those looking to have their pet theories confirmed, we might finally have some sort of consensus on the relation of violent media to violence. If not, we might find ourselves looking at regulatory action prompted by compromised or badly extrapolated results that “justify” the curtailing of free speech these senators so obviously crave.

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