George Gerbner

George Gerbner on Media Violence, Part I

VTR Date: January 11, 1994

Guest: Gerbner, George


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. George Gerbner
Title: “George Gerbner on Media Violence”
VTR: 1/11/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is an old friend and academic colleague who I dare say has done more than any other media scholar or practitioner to make Americans give ever greater thought today to the degree to which mass media content, particularly violent content, may massage our minds and spirit, legitimate violent and fearful behavior, mold our cultural patterns, in short, in terms of the heavy, heavy quota of violence in American life, may make us what we are today. Even in his modesty, I trust that George Gerbner, Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, won’t reject that characterization, particularly as it is offered by his many admirers. But my guest may well take exception to the further friendly suggestion that, by the same token, his insistence on using, sometimes, Saturday morning television cartoon and other traditional comedic action as evidence of media violence, may well give a leg up to those many hostile and much less than disinterested industry apologists who would demean and detract from his research, clearly for their own self-serving reasons. The same may be said of his seeming devil theory of history, his sense of a giant corporate sponsor’s conspiracy to foist television violence upon us in order to make heavy viewers more and more fearful and more and more likely to embrace whatever socially repressive measures are set before it. As Dr. Gerbner has written, “Cheap, happy violence is the result of a de facto censorship foisted on our children, our culture, and our creative people by global marketing formulas. And in nearly all of us, but especially heavy TV viewers, lifelong exposure to images of violence generates a sense of insecurity and a demand for repression, more jails, more executions, more global policing, as long as it can be justified as enhancing our security.”

Now, what I want to ask my guest today is whether his controversial sense of a global marketing conspiracy relating to all of this doesn’t somewhat undermine even that vague outside possibility that someday we will finally come to our senses and stop pushing violence in the media, not because of his devil theory, and not that his research, anyone’s research could ever prove beyond a skeptic’s doubt that media violence begets real-life violence, but rather because no one in his or her right mind could ever look at this garbage and possibly conclude other than that it must be bad for our children, for ourselves, for the good society we all seek. In short, does Gerbner’s provocative insistence on the economically-determined nature of media violence perhaps undermine his, and indeed our, chances of realizing effective media reform, right or wrong, is what Gerbner is charging too much for people to take. George?

GERBNER: Dick, well, if you’re willing to give me equal time, let me …

HEFFNER: It’s yours.

GERBNER: … try to unravel a whole bundle of provocative questions and comments. The devil theory I accept, although usually I’m the devil.

HEFFNER: That’s acceptable too, George.

GERBNER: That’s perfectly acceptable. I glory in that role, because a troublemaker – a role that I gladly accept – is the one who makes people think, who makes us examine our assumptions. Let me address several things, beginning with the Saturday morning children’s cartoon idea, which indeed, as you pointed out, raises a lot of eyebrows, and in some circles seems to undermine the credibility of our research on violence. This really revolves around the definition of violence. Not only the definition, but the function of violence. We define violence in our study in a very conservative, straightforward, overt, explicit way as that which hurts or kills people or threatens to hurt or kill, physical bodily harm. Violence is essentially a demonstration of power. Where we part from most of the conventional theorizing and public debate is that we don’t jump to the conclusion that violence is harmful. We don’t jump to the conclusion that the principal consequence of violence is imitation. We start out with the concept that violence is a demonstration of power. Society works by, with, and for power. We hope that power is equitably shared. Too often power is concentrated in relatively few hands. The best demonstration of power, which means who can get away with what against who, who can dominate, who submits, who is more likely to come out on top, who is more likely to lose or be more vulnerable.

The demonstration of power works best when it is sugar-coated with humor. The basic indoctrination of children starts with cartoons. It used to be fairy tales. Fairy tales demonstrate power too. Now it is mostly cartoons. They are sugar-coated. They slide down, the pills of power slide down very easily. And children begin to learn very early, earlier than ever before in history, when parents used to be able to control the storytelling process, but no longer so. They learn very early what their risks of success or failure, of vulnerability or domination or submission are against other types of people. That is the principal lesson of violence.

Violence is an important, perhaps the key function of socializing people into a structure of power, of making them find their place, their niche, whether it’s on top, or it’s in the middle, or it’s in the bottom. You find that through exposure to demonstration of power some people learn to act as minorities. Minorities are not born. Minorities is not even a question of numbers. Women are the majority of the human population, and yet we teach women to act like minorities. And the key or one of the most effective ways of teaching is demonstration of power where they are more likely to be victimized than to win. And for example, in cartoon programs, and cartoons, if anything, are an exaggeration of what you see in primetime. In primetime, for every 10 violent characters there are about 12 victims. For every 10 women who are given roles in which they can assert their power against other people who are unwilling to accept them, which is a pretty good definition of violence, there are 16 female victims. For every 10 non-White, non-American or native women, there are 22 victims. So that the victimization rate goes up as the social status or the power status goes down. This is an enormously powerful way of teaching people how to behave in a conflict situation.

Now, let me switch this. And I think that that is why the humor, the cartoon, are extremely effective. The come in first, the rest will follow. And if anything, in cartoons this inequity of power and vulnerability is even exaggerated.

In primetime programs, men outnumber women three to one. In cartoons, it’s four to one. In news it’s five to one. News is more power-oriented, is the most power-oriented of our storytelling processes. Now, let’s go back to the question of violence. Violence is a legitimate and even necessary journalistic and artistic feature. It is necessary because it’s the best way to show the tragedy and the pain and the damage that this kind of last resort to resolving human conflicts creates in life, in families, in communities, in nations. But most of the violence that we get are essentially commercially-produced entertainment – and I’ll come back to it in a minute – they’re what you suggested in the phrase we coined, this happy violence. It’s violence that is swift, that is cool, that is effective, that is perpetrated by good guys as much if not more than bad, in a good cause of course. And always leads to a happy ending. Because after all, you have to deliver the audience to the next commercial in a receptive mood. The advertisers would not want people to be upset with tragedy, with blood, with gore, let alone with really dramatic and in many ways hurtful tragedy.

So we have this happy violence. Images of violence without consequences, in historically unprecedented proportions. Sure, there is violence in Shakespeare, and there was violence in The Bible, and there’s violence in fairy tales, some of it pretty dreadful. But those are handcrafted, individually administered, and highly controlled acts, sometimes controlled by parents, sometimes controlled by communities, typically showing tragedy, showing consequences. Today, we are awash in a tide of violent images such as the world has never seen. Every home, five scenes of violence per hour in primetime. Three or four entertaining murderers a night. Twenty-five acts of violence, demonstrations of power, in videos, and unequal distribution of vulnerability in children’s programming, which is the basic initial indoctrination, in Saturday morning.

HEFFNER: Do you feel …

GERBNER: We have this every day. See, there’s no longer … For the first time in human history, most of the stories to most of our children are told not by the parent, not by the school, not by the church, not by the community, and in many cases around the world not even by their native country, but a handful of global conglomerates that have something to sell.

Now we’re ready for your conspiracy questions.

HEFFNER: Now, let me ask you now, do you feel that what you have described begets power relationships and violence in our society?

GERBNER: It begets and it conditions and it cultivates a sense of power relationships from infancy on. There’s no longer any isolation. There’s no longer any really family or community control over that.

Now, the question whether it begets violence, that is the imitative part which most people are concerned about, because most media are essentially power-oriented, and they’re more interested in law and order than in anything else. It’s an interesting tradeoff. I would say that the most, whether I call it optimistic or pessimistic, the highest estimate is that it makes about a five-percent contribution to the actual incidence of violence. Now, a five-percent contribution is not a big contribution. To be sure, it means tens of thousands of people in a very large field hurt or killed. But it’s still one out of five, and it gets, in a certain way it’s a scapegoating mechanism that is taking place here because the media get most of the blame instead of the conditions that produce violence in our communities, the other conditions.

HEFFNER: But now that’s precisely what is said, what you’ve just noted is precisely what is said by those who are critical of the congressmen, the senators, the Attorney General who are very much impressed with the statistics that you offer, that it is scapegoating the media. Do you think that’s true?

GERBNER: I think that is true. And the problem … our research has been oversimplified both by media executives, by legislators, and I think by the Attorney General for one reason: They only read the news stories; they don’t read our reports. Our reports explain all of this. Our reports would be that the industry’s best defense against scapegoating, if they agree or admit that particle of responsibility which would be assigned to them, which is much less than what is publicly being considered.

HEFFNER: Now, George, we’re not dealing with fools either in the industries that you’re referring to, film, television, et cetera, or in the Congress.

GERBNER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: We’re dealing with people who have taken Gerbner, and alternately made him their guru or their hated enemy. Why is this the case?

GERBNER: Because they’re not independent. Because they’re political actors, and I must say most of the Cabinet members and the Attorney General are essentially working in the field in which the principal consequence of television violence has been so pervasive and almost irresistible, the principal consequence of growing up with this enormous outpouring of violent images is a sense of insecurity, the sense of fear which no politician can ignore. Here in New York we just had an election campaign and we’re going to have more. We had a gubernatorial campaign. You watch every candidate is going to be harder on criminals, harder on, more jails, more capital punishment, more of all of those things that, as you pointed out, have never worked. It becomes an irresistible political exploitation. Because it gets the votes.

HEFFNER: And less of media.

GERBNER: And today instead it’s coupled with media because in appealing to people’s fears and saying that we’re going to hard and harsh and crack down, not on conditions that produce violence, but on the victims of violence, including the perpetrators, they also blame the media as the major contributors to it. The media are not the major contributors to violence. The major contributors … The media are the major contributors to a notion of the distribution of power in society, and therefore – and this is the peculiar paradox, and I hope that if our viewers remember anything, they remember this – you drench a culture with violence, like gladiators in the arena, it’s a giant pacification exercise. It makes people fearful. It makes people feel vulnerable. It makes people ask for protection. At the same time, there is a certain percentage, let’s say three, four, five percent who say, “Okay, if this is normal, I have no other avenues. Everybody around me is unemployed. People are hungry, are dissatisfied. Society owes me nothing and I owe it nothing. I am going to make the best of it.” And they become very violent. What we are now considering in this year, 1993-94, seems like a turning point, is whether that price is too high. Whether the price for pacification of the vast majority of the people in terms of the imitative violence is too high. Whether the fact that violence occurs, even though homicide is down – you wouldn’t know it from the politicians’ statements – homicide is down, but it happens earlier, it happens younger, it happens with more adolescents who have no idea of consequences. This is part of the price we are paying for the bread and circuses, the giant pacification efforts or exercise which we call the mean world syndrome.

If I can sum up our studies of 28 years on a more or less annual basis of what the consequence of growing up with a heavy, in a heavy-viewing home compared to next door, when next door it happens to be a light-viewing home, living in the same world, is that children growing up in a heavy-viewing home, and it doesn’t matter what they choose, if you watch more than two, three hours, you cannot be selective. There are not that many choices. Because television viewing is determined by the clock, not by the program. In a heavy-viewing program, children growing up in a meaner world, in a world in which they feel more endangered, they consider violence more normal. Some of them decide to engage in it. Most of them decide to find some sort of protection, demand protection, vote for candidates who offer them protection, no matter how illusory that might be. And grow up in a mean world of alienation, of resentment, of a great deal of dissatisfaction, which I think is a very disturbing trend in our society. Compared to the next door neighbor, who lives in the same world but watches less television. It’s that mean world syndrome that sums up a series of manifestations. It’s not only committing violence. That’s one of the less pervasive, although most dramatic and in many ways most disturbing, and certainly the most over-publicized consequence. But I’d like to call attention to the range of consequences, in effect, that violence is a fairly complex scenario, it’s a social relationship that teaches several lessons, not just one lesson.

HEFFNER: If your political friends and supporters understood the real nature of your message, do you think you would remain their guru?

GERBNER: Well, I don’t care. I’m not …

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I didn’t ask if you cared. Would they, if they understood what you seem to be analyzing here …


HEFFNER: … is almost a conspiracy to make us …


HEFFNER: … mean-world oriented.

GERBNER: Dick, “conspiracy” is a word that is used in order simply to dismiss something.

HEFFNER: I don’t mean it that way, George.

GERBNER: I know you don’t. But it’s used. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Sykes, the former chairman of the FCC with whom I debated on a television show, said, “Well, that’s a conspiracy theory that you just heard.” Conspiracy is a plot that failed. If people have to conspire, they already lost.

HEFFNER: But this works.

GERBNER: This works. It works for many reasons that we can go into. It’s called planning. It’s called good business. It’s called having a nose for what, not for necessarily for what sells, but what is the most profitable. It is simply … I mean, what are all of these people doing? They’re not wasting their time. They’re meeting, they’re figuring things out, they’re planning ahead, they’re looking at the balance sheet, and they know very well what works. Now.

HEFFNER: and you’re saying they’re trying to create a society that is fearful.

GERBNER: No, they’re not trying. This is a fallout. This is an unintended consequence, but it is a consequence that is functional for maintaining the existing structure of power. Fear has always been the great instrument of government.

HEFFNER: One of the troubles, George, is that you make it feel as though you are saying that there is a purposeful connection between the violent material on the air and in film and the intentions, the purposes of a global marketing plan.

GERBNER: Well, let me say how it works, and then we can discuss whether purposeful, purposeful in the sense of a good business sense, yes, but purposeful in the sense of inflicting damage, no. The way that the mass production, the assembly line formula, driven, production of this happy violence works is as follows: As you know, a producer in the United States, a producer of television programs or of high-budget films barely breaks even on the domestic market. Because we have what is called an oligopoly, which is relatively few buyers, they set the price low enough so that the producer barely breaks even on the domestic market. By and large, most producers are forced onto the world market to make a profit. And when you’re forced onto the world market you’re looking for an ingredient to inject into your dramatic formula, or indeed into your news, that travels well. And if you read the trade papers you find they say, “Violence, no, we don’t like it, but it travels well. It needs no translation. It speaks action in any language. It’s relatively culture-free. Every culture knows violence. And it has a certain minimum intrinsic value because it has to do, attraction, because it has to do with physical integrity.” And so violence is injected as a cheap industrial ingredient into assembly-line produced, formula-driven programs, because even though it’s not very popular – and I can prove that it is not – it extends the market globally so much that it compensates for the relative lack of popularity at home or even in any country. So indeed, as you suggested before, it is violence as a formula-driven commodity, is imposed on creative people. I’m just back from Hollywood, and they’re very unhappy about it. It is foisted on the children of the world because it travels well.

Now, who is perpetrating all of this? The chief executives of the networks are not happy about it. They are deeply divided. They’d like to reduce it because it’s an international embarrassment. In the recent negotiations over the General Agreement on Trade and Traffic, GATT, there was a practical revolt of European countries. And they say, “Don’t dump your violence on our culture. We refuse to take it.” And that is spreading all over the world. So it’s an international embarrassment. It is coming under pressure at home too.

But there is this middle level of syndicators who say, “I don’t care whether I’ll like it or not. I am not producing programs. I am not responsible for license-holders. I am just a global marketer. If you want to market at a certain cost per thousand, reduce your cost, increase your reach, this is the formula that will sell.” It’s an impersonal mechanism that works very well and is going to have to change. Because just as the marketers, as the producers, as the networks are globalizing, so the people are making global connections.

I’m associated with an organization called the Cultural Environment Movement. That is a movement, is a coalition of citizen groups, of minority, or women’s groups, of groups in the professions, of religious groups, of a more equitable and non-repressive kind, of health-related groups that consider the issue of violence a health problem, who are saying what we need to slow down, halt, or reverse this tidal wave of violent images, what we need is, it’s not enough to do a wonderful job, as you’re doing, in trying to identify and warn people, label and so on. We have to prevent it. What we need is liberation. To be liberated from the formulas that impose violence.

HEFFNER: George, what we need is another half-hour. Because this one has come to an end. More than that. And I am too frustrated. So you have to promise me that you’re going to come back and talk about that movement.
GERBNER: You trapped me on the air. What can I say? I’ll be glad to.

HEFFNER: George Gerbner, thank you very much for joining me today.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”