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Interview with Cardinal William Keeler


Archbishop of Baltimore U.S. Bishops' Committee for Communications Consultant

Why did the U.S. bishops issue Renewing the Mind of the Media?

People feel powerless before offensive portrayals of sex and violence in the media. The Bishops now call them to address intelligently and effectively a problem which affects the very fabric of our national culture. Our ability to respond to each other with dignity and respect is eroded by whatever demeans the human person. The Church has an obligation to dignify, enhance and humanize the culture. It has had that role historically, and it has a critical role in doing so today.

Who bears responsibility for the manipulation of sex and violence in the media?

Decision-makers who create and disseminate offensive material and programming bear the primary blame. Advertisers that support such material and programming also bear a heavy responsibility. Government bodies have abdicated a good deal of their responsibility for monitoring the broadcast media, and they should be urged back into action. Consumers who buy and use this kind of material on the one hand have become its victims and on the other, have enabled its production with their support. All people who passively accept what they get from the media and don't complain when they see, read, or hear things of which they do not approve add to the problem.

Does the Church have a special role in this area?

Because the Church has the ability to mobilize, educate and persuade people, it does have a special role. We can convene people and facilitate activism; use our pulpits to alert families to their responsibility to take a pro-active stance; call on business people to examine their investments to see if they put money into companies producing sexually explicit and violent material. The churches can urge neighbors to talk to neighbors when they see a problem in local stores and video arcades. The Church can remind parents to explore their children's media interests with them and be sure that children are provided with wholesome entertainment. In fact, for 60 years the church has alerted families to the moral quality of movies through its rating system, which continues today in the Bishops' Office of Film and Broadcasting which now also reviews major television programming and what is available on video. In a matter like this, the Church also wants to work with other faith groups because this is a problem that undercuts the morality of our entire society. In talking over these issues with other Christians and with Jewish and Muslim partners of dialogue, I find that they have the same concern regarding explicit sexuality and the gratuitous violence in the media. The churches and other faith groups can also advocate for access to the media so we and groups who share our concerns can be present in the media as alternative voices.

How much does media really affect us?

I have no doubt that the media can cause young people (and adults, as well) to be confused about what is right and wrong and what behavior is acceptable and what is not. The media use sexual innuendo pervasively in dramas and sitcoms. People are assumed to be sexually active outside of marriage from at least the late teen years, and those who are not are ridiculed. Advertising demeans sexuality by using it as a means of selling products. Action/adventure programming and video games present violence as something to be enjoyed for itself without any moral context or purpose. However, it should be emphasized that even in the unlikely event of its being proven that wrong messages about sexuality and violence in the media have no effect in real life, the Church would still have to challenge them vigorously. Messages that demean sexuality and marriage and lack respect for the integrity of the human person are wrong in and of themselves. 

Since violence on television is make-believe can it really hurt us?

When you consider the graphic violence found in the media today, which would have been ruled unsuitable by both producers and consumers only 20 or 30 years ago, it would be hard to argue that society has not become largely desensitized to violence. Undoubtedly the media's escalating use of graphic violence in speech and action has been influential in this. The media have accustomed us to vile language, angry talk and demeaning terms which no longer have the capacity to shock us. They enter from art into life, as the media celebrities who use them are made "folk heroes" by the media themselves. At the same time, young people have been inundated with physical violence through the news and entertainment media, and that too no longer has the shocking effect it ought to have. An atmosphere has been created in which at least a few people no longer feel the restraints they ought to about resorting to violence, as some terrible events in the last few years demonstrate.

Isn't pornography a victimless crime?

As with violence, pornography and the seemingly less offensive abuses of sexuality create an atmosphere which lowers inhibitions about engaging in certain forms of behavior through which some people -- especially women -- are indeed victimized. Those who turn to pornography to satisfy their obsession with sex quickly find that it has an addictive quality which means that the user has to seek increasingly more degrading forms of it to maintain the "thrill." The porn industry -- which, after all, is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar business -- exploits minors by using them in their films and publications or luring them into sexual activity. Ultimately society is pornography's victim. There is no better proof of that than the Internet. No sooner do we have at our command this instrument for so many good and useful purposes than it turns out that pornographic web sites are among the fastest growing category. As a result, parents, schools, libraries, government and industry have to spend time and money on figuring out how to curb pornography's influence so that the Internet can be useful in the way it was intended to be.

What can families do?

Families need to protect their homes. They wouldn't welcome visitors who trashed their homes, and they shouldn't welcome visitors through media who trash their minds. Parents need to watch TV with their children, and ask their children to share what they're viewing on the Internet. Parents also need to teach that sex is a gift to be used within marriage and that we must treat one another respectfully in all we do. That means avoiding not only physical violence but also violence in the way we speak to one another and even think about one another. Families can also make a wise decision by putting the family computer in a common room where family members can share what they're viewing. Parents can critically view media with their children and thereby teach them to develop standards for judging media. They should know the content of the video games they buy for their children and what games are available at the mall. All this should be accomplished in an atmosphere of trust in which children will be willing to share their concerns knowing that their parents will not automatically expect the worst. A 14-year-old is naturally going to be curious. Parents can share that curiosity, for example, by listening to the music the children listen to and asking what they hear in it. This is time-consuming, but the media are so much part of our lives, so capable of forming contemporary attitudes by their very pervasiveness, that parents should give the media an attention comparable to what they give to their children's school.

What can government do?

Government has all but abandoned the minimal regulation it used to exercise in the name of making the broadcast media operate in the public interest. It may be possible to restore at least some regulatory vigor, although such attempts will always meet strong resistance from media lobbying. A good sign is Congress's mandate to manufacturers to include in new television sets a v-chip which, in conjunction with a rating system which the television industry has developed, will enable parents to program their children's viewing. Even where it does not use its legislative or regulatory authority, government can use its "bully pulpit" to encourage industry's self-regulation.

What can parishes do?

Parishes can form groups to talk over media values and discuss what's good and what's bad. Some times young people are tempted to play their parents off other parents. Parents who know that other parents share their attitudes can be more confident in dealing with their children. But not only parents are concerned about media. Parishes can convene all interested parishioners so they can reassure one another of the worth of their concerns. They can help in developing skills for addressing government or media representatives.

How else can people be pro-active?

Don't be satisfied with the status quo. Have media addresses available and regularly complain about what you don't like -- and praise what you do. A big mistake is not to voice support for the good stuff you come across. Good decisions need to be reinforced. Also let sponsors know if you object to where they are putting their advertising dollars. Parents should refuse to purchase violent video games, and they should not let their children go to movies or watch TV programs whose ratings indicate that they are not for children. The unfortunate reality is that too many media companies forget -- sometimes they even deny -- their formative influence on culture and individuals. These companies think of themselves as businesses first and don't seem to respond to much more than the bottom line. They need to be reminded that their responsibilities are greater than that.

Does citizen activism ever work?

Absolutely. U.S. history is filled with successful activism, often in the face of government indifference and inaction. In recent years, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is an organization which changed the way America thinks about drinking and driving. As a result we have seen stronger laws on drunk driving and stricter enforcement of the laws that were there. All of us who are the media's customers should demand to be heard.

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