The Road from Barnard/Columbia to the FCC
May 25, 1999
(as prepared for delivery)
Good afternoon. Thank you for your kind introduction. I am delighted to be here at this first Columbia/Barnard May luncheon and tell you a little bit about myself, the Federal Communications Commission and "The Road from Barnard/Columbia to the FCC." It's also my understanding that the condition of the invitation to the Barnard women was to ante up the speaker. Here's the ante.
In preparing for these remarks, I was reminiscing about my first days at Barnard College and remembered that the first class I actually took was at Columbia College. Before I first registered at Barnard, I decided to take summer classes, and recall taking an art history class entitled Pre-Renaissance Art, taught by Professor Davis. The course had a heavy emphasis on Giotto's influence on Renaissance Art.
That Fall I took a Barnard introductory history seminar that focused on the Middle Ages and became interested in that period. Before I knew it, I was on the road to becoming a "Medieval Studies" major. I took Latin courses, Church history courses, medieval literature courses and wrote my senior thesis on The Position of Women in 13th Century Spain en Las Siete Partidas de Alfonso X El Sabio. For those of you who may not know, the Siete Partidas was a comprehensive law code adapted from the Roman law that also discussed the manners and morals of 13th century Spain.
In thinking about those days when I believed that my mission in life was to become a medievalist, I was trying to make a connection between the Middle Ages and the Federal Communications Commission. I'll confess I was having a hard time thinking of anything relevant except that the National Gallery has a great Pre-Renaissance art collection. Until I remembered what I had heard about the Internet projects being developed by certain monks based in my home state of New Mexico.
You may know how it was the medieval monks who produced some of the most beautiful manuscripts of the so-called "Dark Ages." And it was through many of these manuscripts that "Western learning" was preserved.
Today in Abiqiui, New Mexico, the Benedictine monks of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, are continuing the tradition by becoming electronic publishers and webmasters. Abiqiui is better known as the home of Georgia O'Keefe who often painted the barren but beautiful desert. It's also the home of my maternal grandmother's ancestors. The Abiqiui monks are developing an Internet project entitled Next Scribe Studios, in effect making the transition from parchment to cyberspace. Part of their mission statement reads, and I quote:
"The primary historical characteristic of the advent of the third millennium will be the spread of ubiquitous digital networks in human society. The universal digital network - the Internet and the Web - will rapidly become as integral to human life as speech and writing themselves: for all human social communication, all industry and learning, all religious evangelization, . . . indeed every part of human life, will either take place directly by means of, or be perpetually assisted by, this digital "ether" which will be present everywhere."
These savvy Benedictines are assuring the Church is not left behind in this new information age.
There are also some issues, believe it or not, that we deal with at the FCC that have been around since the Middle Ages and even earlier.
On a more serious note, an issue that I've been thinking about a lot lately is our culture of violence. Of course, the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado and the shootings last week in Conyers, Georgia have focused all of us on the problem. But some are surprised that the public's attention hasn't abated at all in the month since Littleton. Usually, after a tragedy, the news media (and especially the 24-hour cable news networks) go into "saturation mode," covering every aspect of the story down to the minutest detail. But once the media feels like there's nothing "new" to report they usually move on to something else and the public's attention is diverted. But that hasn't happened here. As they say in the news business, this story has "legs."
But the "legs" of the story is not really the ongoing investigations -- although that still gets plenty of attention -- but the search for answers. How and why did this happen? And how can we stop it from ever happening again?
The truth is there are no easy answers. We'll probably never know why these young men did what they did. But that hasn't stopped people from trying to assign blame. Some blame the parents, who should have known what their children were up to. Some blame the easy availability of guns in this country. Some blame the school for inadequate security. Some blame the Internet for teaching children how to easily build bombs. Some blame Hollywood for airing too much violence. There may be some truth in all of these. In tragedies like these, there's always plenty of blame to go around.
I would like to discuss one part of the problem -- media violence. It's not that I don't think that the other pieces of the puzzle aren't important. Believe me, I'd like to see tougher gun control laws and more parental responsibility. But the level of violence in our media is something that deeply concerns me and about which, as a Commissioner of the FCC, I have an obligation to speak.
Let's start with TV. There isn't any doubt that TV has an impact on children. 98% of American homes have a TV set -- more than the percentage of homes that have a telephone. The average American child watches about 25 hours of television a week -- more time each year watching TV than he or she spends in the classroom.
And, much of what children are watching on TV is violent. By the time they complete elementary school, children in the United States have witnessed about 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence. And while prime-time TV contains about 5 violent acts per hour -- bad enough -- there are over 20 violent acts per hour on children's programming. Each week, television programming contains about 800 violent scenes that qualify as high risk for younger children.
But there is some hope on the horizon. It's called the V-chip. The V-chip is a device that will be installed in TV sets that will permit parents to block shows that they do not want their children to see. After years of political wrangling and technical development, the V-chip is about to become a reality. By July 1, half of new TV sets must have a V-chip installed. By next January 1, all new sets must have a V-chip.
The V-chip is not a substitute for parents. It is a tool for parents. Parents cannot always monitor what their children watch on TV. Nowadays there aren't just three channels to monitor, there are dozens. No parent can possibly know what's on all of them all of the time. And in this age of single parent families and families in which both parents must work to make ends meet, it isn't possible for parents to always be at home to monitor their children's television viewing. The V-chip will allow parents to block violent, sexual or other programming that they believe is unsuitable for their children. When the parents leave for work, or go out for the evening and leave the children with a babysitter, they will be able to punch a couple of buttons and the V-chip will block out programming that they do not wish their children to see.
How will the V-chip permit parents to block shows? Well, along with requiring V-chip blocking technology in new sets, Congress also required that program ratings be developed, so that the V-chip would be able to tell what kind of programming is being shown. The ratings will be sent by the TV station or cable operator over what's called the "vertical blanking interval." I'm sure all of you know the horizontal line on your sets that sometimes needs to be adjusted. That's not just there to annoy you. That line can carry a lot of valuable information, like closed captioning for the hearing impaired. It will also carry the TV ratings. The V-chip will be able to read those signals and will block the show if it has been programmed to do so.
I'm pleased that this system is finally about to become a reality. And I'm honored that the Chairman of the FCC asked me to head a task force to make sure that the roll-out of the V-chip goes smoothly. I'll be working hard over the coming months to ensure that the V-chips are in the sets, that the ratings are being sent, and that parents are educated about the system.
The V-chip is not a cure-all. By itself, it's not going to prevent another Littleton, or save the hundreds of other children who are murdered or are victims of violence each year. But while it's not the whole answer, it might be a part of the answer -- at least for some families.
Of course, there were other media that appear to have played a role in Littleton. When you hear about those young men playing first-person killing games like Doom for hours on end, the studies about how our kids have become desensitized by media violence take on a new immediacy. And it also appears that access to bomb-making information on the Internet played a role.
A lot of people are skeptical that there is anything we can do about our culture of violence. I'm not.
However, under our Constitution, there may be less that the government can do about the threat posed by violent computer games and the Internet. Let me just note a few ideas that others have put forward that are worth considering.
First, there should be a common ratings system. Right now, there are ratings systems for TV, movies, video games and the Internet, but they're all somewhat different. A common system would be simpler and easier for parents to use.
Second, ultra-violent material that is designed for adults should not be marketed to children. It is unconscionable for producers of this material to claim that they are simply protecting the rights of adults to have access to this material, and then market it to children. As Senator Joe Lieberman said: "Joe Camel has not gone away. He seems far too often to have gone into the entertainment business."
Third, the industries involved should enforce their age restrictions. A child under 17 should not be allowed into an "R" rated movie without an adult. A child under 17 should not be allowed to buy or rent an "R" rated movie. A child should not be allowed to buy or rent an adult game at the video store.
Fourth, we must speak out, individually and as a society, and make content-producers think twice before they put gratuitous violence in their products. This may be the most important of all, because of the difficulty in our society of keeping objectionable material from our children. Just think about what the AIDS crisis has done to the depictions of casual, unprotected sex in our entertainment. Content producers have acted more responsibly and now they think twice before having characters jump into bed at the drop of a hat. The same goes for depictions of smoking. These kind of social pressures work. And no one has argued that the First Amendment has been destroyed because of them.
I hope that you will join me in considering and speaking out on these issues. And I hope to see you all again soon at one of your functions. Thank you.