Few twentieth-century institutions have influenced Americans as much as the mass media. Especially since World War II, television, radio, and more recently the Internet have encroached into the lives of people from all classes and walks of life. The media generate an increasing wealth of information and services daily. In their purest form, the media provide the populace with the information it needs to function as a democracy. Matthew P. McAllister, in his book The Commercialization of American Culture, observes that “a well-developed media system, informing and teaching its citizens, helps democracy move toward its ideal state.”
In addition to informing the populace, this boundless store of information provokes controversy. Many people object to the quality of much of the material found in the media—especially violent and sexually explicit material. These critics respond by supporting legislation that places limits on media content. Some laws forbid the production and distribution of material deemed obscene or indecent. Others mandate the use of technological devices that restrict programming that is considered inappropriate. However, such attempts to regulate the media are not welcomed by everyone. Many people are adamantly opposed to placing restrictions on media content, claiming that these restrictions violate the right to free speech.
Freedom of speech has become an indelible part of Western culture. Its origins can be traced as far back as sixteenth-century Britain, and it became a central tenet in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which came out of the French Revolution in 1789. In the United States it is unlikely that the Constitution would have been ratified if it did not contain the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Originally, the “press” meant primarily newspapers, books, magazines, and eventually motion pictures, but the term has since come to refer to radio, television, and the Internet as well.
Freedom of the press is not absolute, however. The First Amendment also provides that no works can be published that “present a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress [or the state] has a right to prevent.” In the modern age there are numerous problems with determining what speech is harmful and with deciding how the harm can be effectively reduced without unnecessarily restricting free speech.The tension between the public’s right to free speech and the government’s right to regulate harmful speech is thus a central issue in debates over the mass media. Two current topics in which this tension is particularly pronounced are the debate over pornography on the Internet and violence on television.
The Internet is a particularly difficult technology to monitor because, unlike radio, television, and newspapers, the information is not generated from a limited number of outlets, but from a galaxy of websites and research engines. As a result, it has become nearly impossible to monitor Internet information from the point of origin. Anyone can access sites, including pornographic ones, easily and privately. Those who wish to restrict pornographic Internet sites either support technological methods, like Internet filtering software, or legislation requiring service providers to monitor and limit pornography.Walter S. Baer, a communications and information policy specialist at RAND, writes that “government laws and regulations should encourage technical and other means to enable us to determine what kinds of information we let into our homes.” Many people, like Baer, believe that technological solutions are better than legislative ones because they preserve the freedom of the media while protecting children from exposure to inappropriate material.
Others believe that both of these methods of restricting Internet content have serious flaws. They contend that no effective way to screen out pornography on the Internet has been developed. In some cases the pornography is not clearly labeled and is immune to blocking systems. In other cases the pornography is successfully blocked along with other nonpornographic sites. In September 1998, when Congress released the text of Kenneth Starr’s report on President Bill Clinton on the Internet, many of the details were so graphic that some congressmen wondered publicly whether or not it should have been edited or summarized instead. Filtering devices designed to identify pornographic sites through keywords or through subject matter may well have identified the report as pornographic.
An issue closely related to Internet pornography is whether violence on television presents a danger to children and, if so, what can be done about it. Many commentators insist that children who view violence on television are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. Therefore, they argue, violent media programming should not be protected by the First Amendment. Kevin W. Saunders, in his book Violence as Obscenity, argues that there should be no distinction between obscenity and violence. “There are no theories of the First Amendment,” he writes, “that justify an exception for sexual obscenity that cannot be reasonably extended to justify an exception for what might be described as violent obscenity.”
Other researchers question whether television violence does in fact cause violence. Jonathan L. Freedman, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, argues that although children imitate what they see on television, the link between such imitation and societal violence is not clear. After all, television villains usually start the violence and are punished for it. A child may learn how to execute a karate kick on television, according to Freedman, but that does not mean that television has caused the child to be an aggressive person. “Television is an easy target for the concern about violence in our society,” he writes, “but a misleading one.” Freedman and others who question the causal link between television violence and real-life violence object to efforts to regulate violent television programming.
Although considerable disagreement exists between those who promote unfettered access to the media and those who believe that the media must be restricted, there is no question that the mass media are among the most pervasive elements of modern culture. The media will continue to exert a strong influence on politics and pocketbooks, on recreation and on the marketplace. These are the issues explored in Mass Media: Opposing Viewpoints, which contains the following chapters: How Does Television Affect Society? Is Advertising Harmful to Society? How Do the Media Influence Politics? Should Pornography on the Internet Be Regulated? Are Television Content Regulations Beneficial for Children? The varying opinions expressed here reveal and explore the important place the mass media occupy in American society and culture.