For Americans watching TV news, March began in typical fashion. When five people were shot on the first day of the month in a town near Pittsburgh, cable networks swiftly jumped into action. They devoted hour after hour to the tragedy -- giving viewers plenty of live footage from helicopters, interviews with terrified eyewitnesses and grim official briefings. Correspondents functioned much like schizoid ghouls.
The television industry is good at deploring bloodshed -- while milking it to boost ratings. But the hypocrisy only begins there.
On the last day of February, the shocking news was that a 6-year-old boy in Michigan killed a classmate. How would a little boy get the impression that pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger is appropriate behavior? Not exactly a tough question.
But it's too tough for the nation's up-to-the-minute TV journalists -- especially when their jobs involve playing dumb.
By now, news programming on television is fully part of this country's entertainment industry, in more ways than one. The networks that bring us news are also producing and airing large quantities of TV dramas and feature movies filled with violence. The offerings frequently dramatize gunplay but rarely begin to convey the suffering that results from a bullet tearing through a human body.
Media owners don't need to pay for clever dialogue or thoughtful plots when murder and mayhem are central to the script. Gun-toting stars -- resorting to firearms when all else fails -- are standard on small and big screens. And even if bloody film extravaganzas don't do well at the box office in the United States, they're ideal for export: With no need for adept translation or cross-cultural understanding, movies that rely on violence tend to make huge profits overseas.
Meanwhile, on network news and public affairs programs, the regular pundits who argue about "gun control" would not dream of advocating for much tighter control of -- or less spending for -- the big guns deployed by the Pentagon. And when U.S. missiles or other weapons are being fired in anger, American advocates of nonviolence (if they're mentioned at all) are apt to be derided as wimps or naive fools who lack superpower resolve.
Does the routine fare on television really affect human behavior? Well, if it doesn't, the advertising industry is wasting billions of dollars every season. But of course, those who pay top dollar for commercials understand full well that kids -- and yes, the rest of us -- are influenced by what's glamorized on television.
"TV and motion picture guns create powerful, unforgettable images that have had a measurable impact on the shooting world," Guns & Ammo magazine reported in 1985. Entertainment media -- particularly movies -- have "significantly influenced America's fascination with guns," according to Tom Diaz, senior analyst at the Violence Policy Center based in Washington, D.C.
Diaz cites numerous gun-industry sources while documenting that when specific models of firearms have appeared in hit movies and TV shows, the sales of those weapons have skyrocketed. An article in American Rifleman noted that Model 29 of Smith & Wesson's .44 Magnum revolver "enjoyed a massive burst of popularity in the 1970s when it was featured in 'Dirty Harry.'"
In his 1999 book "Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America," Diaz points to "the example set when popular idols use guns to solve disputes or even just to get their way in an otherwise uncooperative world." He adds: "It seems fatuous to suppose that such depictions, no matter how commonplace they are today, have no effect on the attitudes or behavior of those who, for whatever reason, see movie and television stars as their role models."
Defenders of the media status quo may assert that on-screen dramas do not affect what people do in the real world. But such claims are flimsy. "It is well known that the promoters of consumer products from cigarettes and alcoholic beverages to sneakers and automobiles believe there is an effect," Diaz writes. "They angle fiercely (and spend a great deal of money) to 'place' their product for even seconds of exposure in movies or television shows."
The next time TV anchors want to lament the consequences of gun proliferation, they might try taking the matter up with the executives who run the networks.