One of the first words my 20-month-old son learned was show, as in his favorite, eternally recurring program Barney. That most of what he watches is similarly innocuous doesn’t relieve our discomfort as he points to the television every morning and demands, Show! Show! Not that we deny him his fix. Show is our cue to turn the set on.
A worrisome if understandable finding of a recent study by The Annenberg Public Policy Center is that parents are less concerned about the 4.5 hours children spend each day before some kind of video screen than they are about the content. I believe what we watch is less important than how much we watch. Objectionable material must be filtered, but the bigger challenge is to limit our time spent with electronic media of all kinds. It requires acknowledging how we rationalize our media habits, which is often by scapegoating the industry (a catchall form for the communications and entertainment businesses).
Can the Church Help?
In June, the National Conference of Catholic Bishopshereafter the bishopsapproved a pledge to be taken on a voluntary basis by parishioners on Dec. 17, the Jubilee Day for Cinema, Theater and Entertainment. From 2001 through 2004, it will be taken on world media day in May. The pledge grew out of the bishops’ sophisticated 1998 letter, Renewing the Mind of the Media: Overcoming the Exploitation of Sex and Violence in Communications.
Early in that document, they make a crucial observation. The real threat isn’t patently immoral material but the pervasiveness of degenerate images in ordinary fare such as advertising, prime time television, and G-rated movies. While steps can be taken to isolate what is deemed legally obscene, the prevalence of the extreme within the mainstream goes largely unchecked. Since it is impossible to prevent exposure to dehumanizing images altogether, something else needs to happen. Naturally enough, the bishops’ approach emphasizes moral psychology. According to the pamphlet’s title, we must renew our minds.
This terminology is taken from Romans: Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect (12:2). The title phrase, renewing the mind of the media, sounds like a reference to the media industry. Evidently the bishops do not mean it that way; they put the onus on individuals. A more accurate title might be renewing the media mind each of us possesses as producer, purveyor and/or consumer. This is not simply semantics, for it explains what initially struck me as a major flaw in the bishops’ approachan overly solicitous attitude toward the industry.
Indeed, they make a point of not alarming the industry and refuse to single it out as unduly harmful to society. Citing the church’s history of being silenced by governments and its respect for the arts, they strongly declare their opposition to any form of censorship or infringement on the right to self-expression. In general, a whiff of resignation is detectable in the bishops’ message, as if reforming the hydra-headed media industry were impossible.
They adopt a conciliatory tone for a number of good reasons, however, including a history of anti-Semitism in the church’s attitude toward Hollywood. They recognize that their audience includes the many Catholics who work in the industry. Their temperance also accords with a statement, Civility in Media, approved along with the pledge, in which the bishops eschew the nearly hysterical, often ad hominem attacks that mar so much public discourse. And presumably they tried to distance themselves from the overheated rhetoric directed at the entertainment industry by some church leaders in the past.
Here’s the pledge:
The communications media are a God-given gift able to bring truth and beauty into our lives. We, the Catholic people of the United States, united in our families, parishes, and dioceses, pledge to work together to encourage all those responsible for the media we use each day to fulfill their vocations responsibly and to eliminate that which diminishes our appreciation of God’s image in creation. We pledge to support, in all forms of mediatelevision, radio, film, video, telephone, cable services, print, advertising, and the Internetwhatever is of moral worth and to discourage everything that is immoral and demeans the dignity of the human person.
Gone is the shrill denunciation of Hollywood that characterized the original Legion of Decency pledge from the 1930’s. Although softened in subsequent revisions, this pledge contained pejorative language (vile, filthy), and takers vowed to arouse public opinion. It is clear that the old pledges were designed to send a powerful message to the industry, whereas this one is primarily intended to raise the consciousness of the Catholic media-user. That may have the residual effect of heightening awareness in the industry, but isn’t there a role for public outrage? After all, The Legion of Decency pledge was popular with both Catholics and non-Catholics; and in conjunction with the Movie Production Codeshaped to a great extent by Catholicsit was influential, even if the results were short-lived.
Catholics might reasonably expect the bishops to give a stronger voice to the worry, anger, disgust and frustration they feel about the media. This earnest oath may not even be forceful enough to register with them, let alone the industry and non-Catholics.
Yet resisting stridency allows the bishops to discharge their pastoral duty of tending to the souls in the pews. Little would be gained if, on the advice of the hierarchy, Catholics protested, boycotted or signed petitions without first undergoing an individual change of mind. Not that those things cannot raise consciousness; but even if the bishops were inclined to minister in that directionfrom public demonstration to personal moralityadopting a strategy of public shaming would not result in deep, lasting change. The bishops’ goal is to help Catholics, and anyone else who will listen, to confront their own media habits and deal with the consequences.
The renewal in the citation from Romans entails developing powers of discernment to help us recognize what is wrong for a certain audience in a certain context, plus the determination to use those powers. This is not very complicated, provided one is honest. To vary an old saw, we know what is degrading when we see it. And, yes, if consumers change their media state of mind and thus their habits, the industry might make different choices.
This kind of renewal underscores a major theme of the bishops’ message. With admirable perspicuity they hone in on the hypocrisy we often display concerning the media. Some may contradict themselves by watching, listening to, or reading what they say they deplore. The bishops use this insight in their main appeal to industry players, asking them to examine their own attitudes toward objectionable material. Many would not want their children watching what they create or sell, and this realization ought to provide impetus for self-regulation.
The bishops challenge themselves and their fellow religious to be authentic as well. Referring to our own example of chastity and a peaceful spirit, they urge colleagues to use their personal example to highlight these issues. This reflexive quality boosts their credibility and emphasizes the centrality of taking responsibility for one’s own media habits.
Although the bishops stress moral psychology over public activism (for which there is doubtless a role), their effort has a practical dimension. Pledge-takers are asked to select one or more attitudes or actions that will promote more responsible, moral, and ethical media. The 10 listed options include: discussing media with friends and family; abstaining from using various media and finding alternatives for the found time and money; praising or complaining about specific programming and products to media outlets; and using resources such as the Catholic Bishops’ Film and Broadcasting Office’s movie review line.
In the letter they call on government to reassert its regulatory role with regard to the broadcast spectrum and to diligently regulate new technologies. They suggest that church groups help local authorities enforce laws against pornography. They call on families to become less media-dependent and seek out alternativesprayer, reading, quiet time or even media-free days. They urge Catholic youth not to let themselves be manipulated by the media. Another document approved in June, Your Family and Cyberspace, outlines the dangers of the Internet and offers a detailed list of dos and don’ts for protecting children. Other practical information and resources are available from the Catholic Communication Campaign.
What are the chances the pledge will make a difference? The goal of spurring parishioners to reflect on their media habits is not overly ambitious. Nevertheless the bishops are not raising expectations. They are giving the pledge five years to gain momentum and have an impact. There are no plans to publicize it with a press conference or media campaign, or do anything special to bring it to the attention of the industry. It will be posted on the U.S.C.C.’s Web site.
The pledge will be taken within a faith community, but taking it to heart will be a personal act. Vowing to renew your mind is a fancy way of saying you’ll do basic things like turn the television off. When my son says, Show, I guess we’ll just have to say, No. A bit simplistic perhaps. But also good, pleasing, and perfect.