Murder in the Heartland

Article excerpt

However, the most questionable offering by far was "Murder in the Heartland." Here Tim Roth portrayed Charley Starkweather, a Nebraska teenager who, in the late 1950s, took off with his girlfriend, Caryl Fugate, on a killing rampage. Starkweather eventually was executed.

The movie was widely condemned by media critics of all stripes for its pointless brutality. The criticism took on even heavier weight when a young man in Canada went on a shooting spree that he said was inspired by the TV show.

The producer of "Murder in the Heartland" claimed that in more than 30 years the Charley Starkweather story had never been filmed and that it demanded telling. The Starkweather saga is a classic American story. It is a parable about despair, rage and isolation in a land of vast empty spaces, geographic and spiritual. But it was nailed on film in the 1970s by the Terence Malick film "Badlands" (with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) which changed little but the names in the Stark-weather saga.

And if that weren't enough, in 1982 Bruce Springsteen did the job again, from the inside out, in the title cut of his "Nebraska" album. Between the film and the song there is nothing left to say about Charley Starkweather, and no responsible reason for re-airing the tale.

But a "statement" about America, or anything else, wasn't really on the agenda for the "Heartland" producers, or for anyone else in the commercial television business. TV is in the business of selling an audience (you and me) to advertisers (the Fortune 500, et al.). They will put on whatever they think will draw a crowd. Because naked bodies are specifically prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission, violence, the sleazier the better, is the next best bet.

That's what got Senator Simon and legions of other public-spirited reform types involved in this issue. In many circles, TV violence is increasingly viewed as a public health problem, a contributing factor to the spiraling problem of youth violence and homicide. This analysis could suggest active measures regulating program content -- measures that other, equally public-spirited citizens might call censorship.

One media reform group, the National Coalition on Television Violence, has tried to straddle these positions with a proposal for a federally mandated TV-ratings system, health warnings before violent broadcasts and warnings in all program advertising.

There is ample precedent for such regulation of broadcast television. Historically, the public airwaves have been viewed as a public trust. Thus, broadcast speech -- which enters the home unannounced -- has not been allowed the same freedoms as print or film, which require a deliberate choice and a purchase before exposure. …