Can boycotts be part of the answer?

By Mario M. Cuomo, Governor of New York

June 1994 – Our television screens are awash in blood. And we’re starting to see that the electronic mayhem encourages even more real-life bloodshed in a society that already has at least as much as it can deal with.

Americans – a significant number, anyway – want to see something done about it. So it is no surprise that the idea of tough new government regulation is beginning to be spoken of seriously in some of the most unlikely and usually clear-minded circles.

But at this point let’s ask ourselves: Do we really want a thought-police crackdown?

Government censorship – and that’s what it would be – would mean seizing an important part of our freedom and delivering it to a government we already distrust; substituting the opinions of faceless and unaccountable bureaucrats for our own judgments about what is valuable or interesting or entertaining.

And even if we could muster a cadre of governmental Brahmins that we would trust more than ourselves,  what rules would they apply in censoring our radio and television – not to mention eventually our printed media? Would NYPD Blue be acceptable because its violence seems to have a moral?

How about Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or operas? Would artful violence be allowed but poorly done violence banned? What about news programs that zoom in on the gore and degradation of war?

In the end, government regulation simply does not represent the least intrusive means to the end we all desire. The cure would be worse than the disease.

What choices are left? Maybe instead of regulation by government we should consider trying a little self-regulation. Can’t the rest of us work a little harder at living out – and displaying – the message that violent solutions diminish us as human beings? Can’t we work harder at delivering more constructive messages? Shouldn’t we, especially the parents among us, be doing more to reject the violence and filth we see around us? Can’t we keep our children from watching and being contaminated by the poisons of television the way we keep them from the bottles marked with a skull and crossbones? It would surely be part of the solution.

Another alternative would be some kind of self-policing by the broadcasters, a strategy supported by a number of important voices in the industry. Warning labels are already in effect, and “V-chips” that block pre-labeled violent shows are being talked about.

All these ideas might help, but they won’t be enough in the end. We function in a profit-driven, free-enterprise system, a system that imposes on the broadcast industry an overriding pressure to produce dividends for its shareholders – no matter what.

This suggests still another possibility. Perhaps the swiftest most powerful way to improve the quality of radio and television – as well as movies and popular music and advertising – would be the purest kind of legitimate commercial persuasion. A real campaign by the consumers: We won’t buy your action-adventure killer robots or your lemon-fresh soap or your cold-filtered beer if you keep purchasing garbage and pouring it into our living rooms!

A kind and grand referendum. A coast-to-coast cooperative campaign – led by the President and Mrs. Clinton – enlisting every thoughtful American embracing every worried parent, to demand that we aim for a higher standard in what the cables and airwaves pump into our lives, in what we see at the movies or buy on compact disc. A campaign that includes young people and government officials and corporate executives and our great spiritual leaders.

If such a campaign were conducted, it could help push us through our own good instincts to the kind of civility and sensibleness and feeling of community that has been eclipsed by the dark images coming from our television screens.

And if the campaign failed it would nevertheless serve a purpose. It might prove that the executives of radio and cable and television are not, after all, jamming sex and violence and profanity down our throats, but that the American people are choosing it from a menu called the program guide. That the truth is, the American people boost the ratings of the overheated, made-for-TV movies about other people’s adultery. That we’re the ones with the appetite for endless re-enactments of the real live blood and terror of police work.

If America does indeed contain this extraordinary contradiction – this desire for what disgusts us, this disgust for what we desire – then maybe we should admit it to ourselves. Admit that as a nation we were born in violence and we will live with it, and all our protestations are mostly pretense.

That kind of look in the mirror on the morning after might shock us into a real commitment to change things.