A child is missing.  Sent to the corner for a loaf of bread, she has not returned.  We all know the horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach such news brings.  We hope against hope, but in time, the inevitable outcome is reported: her little body has been found in a field, raped and murdered.  Her family’s grief is shared by everyone who hers the news.

Sadly, these tragedies occur with increased frequency, although no one can say with certainty why this is so.  Virginie Lariviere believes much of the blame belongs to television violence, and she recently presented Prime Minister Mulroney with a petition signed by 1.3 million Canadians who want the government to curtail the excessive violence which comes into our homes through the TV.  Virginie, although only 14 years old, deserves our attention.  It was her little sister, Marie-Eve, whose dead body was abandoned in a field near Montreal last spring, and her killer remains unknown.

The effects of watching hundreds of acts of violence every week are difficult to measure, but studies have consistently shown that repeatedly viewing programs which present acts of violence as entertainment can lead to desensitization. A 1992 report by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) stated, “Although television violence is not solely responsible for aggressive tendencies and antisocial behaviour – suicides, homicides, other crimes and distorted perceptions – it is among the risk factors involved.”

A 1989 Associated Press-Media General poll found that 82 percent of those surveyed thought current movies contained too much violence, but there are no signs of it letting up on the screen.  The same poll found 80 percent felt there was too much profanity, and 72 percent thought there was too much nudity.

Today, with VCRs and cable channels, there is virtually nothing to distinguish between what is available in theatrical release and on television.  The explicitness of violence, sexual behaviour and language increases every season even on network television despite the public’s expressed preference for more family-oriented material.

There is contempt for decency, typified recently by the producers of Seinfeld, a sitcom on NBC.  An episode in November was about masturbation.  It disturbed advertisers enough that nine out of ten of them pulled their ads off that week’s show.  So what? laughed the network.  “We didn’t lose a dime,” said the president of NBC.  “There are advertisers lined up around the block to get into Seinfeld.”

Michael Medved, so-host of the PBS series Sneak Previews, is the author of the recently-released, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values.  His extensive analysis, according to a review in Catholic Twin Circle, leads him “to the conclusion that greed doesn’t rule over all in Hollywood.  What counts is the desire of an elite to shock the middle class masses, plus this elite’s need to cultivate respect from fellow filmmakers…who are happiest when depicting dreary or socially destructive material.”

Medved’s assessment is not surprising, given the results of the Lichter and Rothman study of media elite, conducted during the mid-eighties.  This study found that 97 percent of so-called media elite – those responsible for creating and programming what we see on screen – seldom or never attend religious services.  The same number believe in abortion on demand.   Only 5 percent consider homosexual acts to be morally wrong.

The results of the Lichter-Rothman study prove that the prevailing ethic in Hollywood is seriously at variance from that of mainstream North American society.  The implications are particularly frightening in view of their finding that two thirds of the media elite interviewed for this study believe the entertainment which they create should be used to reshape society.

At first glance, violence may not seem to be part of this agenda.  The graphic depiction of violence is, however, precisely part of the same ethic of desensitization and dehumanization.  It is required to seduce viewers into accepting the same mindless and soul-less approach to human sexuality.

Recently, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles issued a 40 page pastoral letter, “Film Makers, Film Viewers: Their Challenges and Opportunities.”  Mahony had previously made media types skittish when discussing content.  In his letter, he makes it clear he is not calling for censorship, but rather for a sort of “examination of conscience” for both creators and viewers of entertainment.  It has been favourably received by critics and filmmakers.

For example, Cardinal Mahony asks that we contemplate, “How deeply and honestly is evil treated?  So we see its initial allure, the disparity between what it promises and what it delivers, the lie that constitutes its essence, the fear that drives it, the cowardice that lies at its heart, the dehumanizing emptiness that afflicts those who succumb to it, the violence that is all too often its culmination?  Do we see its life-suppressing, life-stultifying, life-destroying effects?”

Both the Cardinal from Los Angeles and the little girl from Montreal remind us that when viewing movies and TV, we should consider both the consequences and the possibilities.

Copies of Cardinal Malony’s letter are available.  Write to the Office of Public Affairs, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, CA 90015-1194.  Presumably, a donation to cover costs would be appreciated.