Today’s cuppa: Irish breakfast tea
In August, I posted information on some upcoming TV-related panel discussions at the University of Southern California. After attending one of them, I reflected on aspects of the conversation that took place as part of my syndicated "Open Letter" column, which came out this week.
A few weeks ago, I went to a panel discussion on depictions of torture on television, during which a representative of Amnesty International outlined all the ways in which she believed Fox’s thriller "24" has influenced the thinking and actions of a Supreme Court justice, political leaders, military commanders and soldiers in the field.
Her contention was that the show’s use of torture as a storytelling device was having a material effect on attitudes toward torture in political, legal and military circles and was contributing to the frequency of incidents of torture.
I have no idea how much truth there is in her contentions, and in my personal opinion, she didn’t make a compelling cause-and-effect case.
As "24" was created long before the Sept. 11 attacks — it premiered shortly afterward, with probably six or so episodes already in the can — let alone the Iraq War, it’s certainly not a response to either.
Interestingly enough, writer/producer Ronald D. Moore, who was also on the panel, says his "Battlestar
Galactica" was deeply influenced by the mood of a post-9/11 America. Indeed, his show often features torture, and it’s sometimes more sadistic, or even masochistic, than the torture scenes in "24." But since it lives in a science-fiction universe, "Battlestar" doesn’t fall under the same scrutiny.
But even allowing, for the sake of argument, that there is truth in the assertions that some people may have altered their attitudes or behavior regarding torture by watching "24," what exactly are the producers of the show supposed to do?
The most obvious answer would be, "Don’t depict torture on your show," or, "Don’t depict Jack Bauer as an heroic character if he indulges in torture."
Or the argument could be made that no show or film should ever have a torture scene, just in case it influences the weak-minded to inflict harm on others.
In that case, we’d have to nix many future episodes of police shows and espionage dramas, along with war documentaries and James Bond movies (as "Casino Royale" had one of the most brutal torture
scenes in recent memory, and it seems to have so far escaped blame for inciting the British military to misdeeds).
(Note: The above link goes to the scene in question, so be warned if you click on it.)
From time to time, activists have advocated changes in shows to protect children who are too young to make rational judgments about what they’re seeing.
But the last time I looked, "24" was not a show for children, and Supreme Court justices, policymakers, politicians, military leaders and soldiers are all fully functioning adults. Are we to assume that these adults need advocacy organizations and storytellers to police what they see and hear, lest they lost their grip on reality?
I know the difference between fantasy and fact. How about you?
Because of the length limitations of the column, I didn’t have space to discuss another issue raised at the panel, this time by Ron Moore. He spoke about the so-called "CSI effect," the lingering question of whether the depiction of forensic science on the three "CSI" dramas on CBS, along with other forensic crime dramas, influences criminal juries.
Some don’t believe there is a a strong corollary between watching "CSI" and jurors’ propensity to either acquit or
convict — as outlined in this study listed on the website of the Department of Justice — and some give the idea more credence — such as this article from the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University.
As a professional consumer of entertainment, it would seem to me that everything everyone sees, hears or reads has some effect on his or her thinking, from transitory and negligible to lifelong and profound. But who can predict which will turn out to be which?
In my own experience, it’s sometimes an unlikely thing that has the strongest impact. I’ve never been able to shake the harsh reality of "Old Yeller," a 1957 Disney film which a boy has to kill his rabid dog to protect his family.
At the same time, things fully intended as propaganda for one point of view or another have bounced off me without leaving a mark. For example, I’ve seen Oliver Stone’s "JFK " a bunch of times and thoroughly enjoyed it, and yet I still don’t buy his conspiracy theories about the assassination.
But, I was a child when I saw "Old Yeller" on television and an adult when I saw "JFK." Was that the deciding factor? Maybe. I don’t know for sure.
This is probably a debate without a clear resolution. Every right, including free speech, comes with a corresponding responsibility, but when you’re talking about adults, that responsibility applies as much to the listener as to the speaker.