Decades into the culture wars, the battleground over sexual and particularly violent content in media is expanding. And the dividing lines are as sharply drawn as ever.
On Sunday, Hollywood will shower itself with Oscars. Three of the nominees for best film – "Letters From Iwo Jima," "The Departed," and "Babel" – depict a new level of relentless, highly realistic violence, some observers say.
Meanwhile, federal and some state officials are looking to regulate the escalating level of violence in film, TV, video games, song lyrics, and Web-based entertainment.
But many veterans of the struggle are concluding that regulation is not the answer. It's time, they say, for new ideas and a search for common ground.
"Those who create and sell violent media – and the elected officials, regular citizens, or parents who have a concern that this media is creating a more violent society or contributing to the degradation of our culture – need to come together," says Indianapolis's mayor, Bart Peterson. As the recently elected president of the National League of Cities, Mayor Peterson has adopted the issue of media violence as the theme of his upcoming year in office.
His move is evidence of a heightened nationwide concern over violence in media that is causing a backlash.
On Monday, a measure to criminalize the selling of adult- or mature-rated video games to minors moved to the Indiana Senate for consideration. Last week, citing growing pressure from the public, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a draft report suggesting that it was time to regulate violence over the airwaves in much the same way it does with sex and profanity. In January, the Motion Picture Association of America unveiled proposals to strengthen and clarify the voluntary ratings system used to inform audiences about the content of movies.
But Peterson doubts regulation can work. In 1999, his city banned sales of adult and mature video games to those under 18, but courts struck down the ban as unconstitutional. Since then, similar legislative efforts across the country have also been struck down. "Let's have a different way of looking at this," says Peterson, "instead of looking at new regulations that run against the First Amendment, let's look at education that will help people become better citizens and parents."
In April, Indianapolis will sponsor a national summit on the topic, to assemble politicians, private citizens, and content creators. The goal is education, not legislation, he says.
Many media experts applaud this move away from reliance on regulation.
"The emerging common ground in this debate is to develop widespread media literacy, to stop reducing complex kinds of entertainment into simplistic political positions that can't and should not be reduced to easy labels of conservative versus liberal," says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University in Tempe. "The important thing for us to do as a country and as educators is to hold ourselves to our own standards.... Don't dump it on Hollywood or producers and studios, but [let's] realize it is our job to be active, critical evaluators."
Active engagement is the ongoing credo of Act One, a program targeted at Christians who want to work in entertainment.
"For years many have felt Hollywood was not an appropriate place to participate," says screenwriter Chris Riley, who runs the writing program at Act One. "As a result, there is this big gulf. But we can't blame Hollywood for that. We Christians who abandoned Hollywood have to blame ourselves."
Since the program was founded in 1999, Mr. Riley says some 400 graduates have begun to make their way into the industry as trained writers. Key to the program's strategy is targeting every level of the industry, including executives.
The movie industry could also make changes, he adds. "I would love Hollywood to think in terms of the ethics of entertainment in the same way there is an ethics of journalism or medicine or law."
He is not suggesting a list of rules, rather a code: "It would be something that says we're creating product that has an impact on our audience. So, like doctors, first we should do no harm."
A move towards more personal responsibility is urgently needed, says Ken Ferree, former head of the FCC's media bureau. "The entire structure of government regulation of media on virtually every platform is in danger of total collapse within 10 years," he says. "The courts have been ferociously protective of the First Amendment when it comes to new platforms. Every time the FCC tries to go there with new regulations, the courts slap them down. This trend reflects a deeply held societal bias that everyone should be free."
As in most corners of Hollywood, creative independence is an article of faith on the Chatsworth, Calif., set of FOX's primetime thriller, "24." The show reportedly has come under fire from West Point instructors who object to the show's continuing depiction of torture during interrogations. Attempts to make the show follow a set of rules are misguided, says actor James Morrison, standing in front of blinking monitors. He plays the director of the show's counterterrorism unit. "People know the difference between fiction and reality. We have to respect our audience and trust their good sense," he says.