Symbolic Politics: Congressional Interest in Television Violence from 1950 to 1996

Article excerpt

Drawing from sociological research, this study tested the relationship between social, economic, and political factors and congressional actions regarding television violence over forty-six years, and advanced a political science theory, symbolic politics, as an explanation for the relationship. Empirical analysis revealed Congress' actions are more symbolic than substantive. Taken together, the actions correlate with political and social factors. Significantly, congressional interest in television violence has no relationship to the amount of violence on television, suggesting legislators' moral outrage is questionable.

During the 1950s, television became the most popular source of family entertainment. However, even during this first decade of television, remembered as the "Golden Age," concern over violent content became a topic of debate in the halls of Congress. Now, after forty years, this concern has established itself as a recurrent theme.

Congress' seemingly ceaseless interest manifested itself in varying degrees of action. These have included placing a newspaper article in the Congressional Record along with a brief comment, scheduling hearings on the issue, and grilling a few industry representatives. Legislation has also been introduced to limit the amount of violence on television. Congressional concern over television violence is a serious issue. It involves the interplay between government, a most influential industry, and First Amendment protections.

From 1990 to 1996, legislators introduced more than fifteen bills directly relating to television violence. This is a far cry from the trend against actual legislation evident in the preceding three decades.1 Section 551 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which passed with little resistance in either house and was enthusiastically signed by the president,2 mandated a v-chip in every television thirteen inches or larger and encouraged a voluntary ratings system to allow consumers to block certain programming. And Congress is not satisfied that it has done everything within its power to curb television violence. New legislation was introduced the day after the Telecommunications Act became law, and more sat in committees during the 1997 legislative session. In May 1999, Congress held hearings on "media violence," including television, following the Littleton, Colorado, school shooting.3 Further actions are illustrative of ongoing congressional concern.

This study explored all congressional actions concerning television violence from 1950, the first year a member introduced the issue, to 1996, the year the latest law was passed. Specifically, it quantitatively investigated the impact of social, economic, and political factors on congressional interest in television violence and advanced symbolic politics theory as an explanation for this interest. This is the first study to go beyond the anecdotal assumption that Congress acts "as a response to specific violent acts that attracted the attention of the media and of the American public"4 such as the Beavis and Butthead fire episode in 1993 and, instead, empirically tests multiple independent variables to determine their relationship with congressional action over a period of more than four decades.

Background

Although media effects scholars have focused intense efforts on television violence5 and legal scholars have researched the constitutional aspects of governmental interference in the television industry,6 less emphasis has been placed on the complex relationship between public policy makers and the private industry of broadcasting regarding the issue. Very little existing research attempts to unravel why the government periodically places a spotlight on television violence, as it did with its first hearing on the subject in 1952.(7) Still, research investigating the relationship between Congress and its independent administrative agencies8 such as the Federal Communications Commission, as well as works that broadly discuss the relationship of Congress and the broadcasting industry, begin to explain congressional interest in violent television content. …