This is not to say that there isn’t too much violence on the
box-both on entertainment programs and on newscasts that precede
and follow them, which, as Steven Bochco, creator of "Hill Street
Blues," "NYPD Blue," and other police shows has noted,
contain more gore than anything the networks air during prime time.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association
in 1997 found that even advertisements feature violence-and not
only on programs whose content is violent. A child who watched a game
of the World Series in 1996 was almost certain to see commercials that
included shootings, stabbings, or other violence, the study documented.
Nor do I imagine that televised violence has no negative impact. I
doubt, however, that incitement to commit real-world violence is either
the most common or the most significant effect. George Gerbner, Dean-emeritus
of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania,
is closer to the mark with what he calls "the mean-world syndrome."
Watch enough brutality on TV and you come to believe you are living
in a cruel and gloomy world in which you feel vulnerable and insecure.
In his research over three decades Gerbner found that people who watch
a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe their neighborhoods
are unsafe, to assume that crime rates are rising, and to overestimate
their own odds of becoming a victim. They also buy more locks, alarms,
and-you guessed it-guns, in hopes of protecting themselves.
"They may accept and even welcome," Gerbner reports, "repressive
measures such as more jails, capital punishment, harsher sentences-measures
that have never reduced crime but never fail to get votes-if that
promises to relieve their anxieties. That is the deeper dilemma of violence-laden
Questions might be raised about whether Gerbner got the causal order
right. (Does watching TV cause fear and conservatism, or is it that
people prone to fear and conservatism watch more TV?) Yet it is striking
how much resistance Gerbner encountered when he tried to report his
research findings to the public. Frequently invited to speak on news
programs and at governmental hearings where violence in the media is
the topic, he finds himself ignored when he raises broader concerns.
Appearing on ABC’s "Viewpoint" back in 1983, Gerbner
was asked by the host, Ted Koppel, "Is there a direct causal relationship
to violence in our society?" A few minutes later, in the course
of interviewing another panelist on the program, Koppel summarized Gerbner’s
response to that question as affirmative, there is a straightforward
causal relationship between TV violence and real-life violence. Yet
Gerbner’s actual response had asserted that the true causal relationship
is "between exposure to violence and one’s feeling of where
one belongs in the power structure-one’s feeling of vulnerability,
one’s feeling of insecurity, one’s demand for protection."
Ample real-world evidence in support of Gerbner’s proposition
can be found among the nation’s elderly, many of whom are so upset
by all the murder and mayhem they see on their television screens that
they are terrified to leave their homes. Some become so isolated, studies
found, that they do not get enough exercise and their physical and mental
health deteriorates. In the worst cases they actually suffer malnutrition
as a consequence of media-induced fear of crime. Afraid to go out and
buy groceries, they literally waste away in their homes. The pattern
becomes self-perpetuating; the more time elderly people spend at home,
the more TV they tend to watch, and the more fearful they grow.
All of which is regrettable because in actuality people over sixty-five
are less likely than any other age group to become victims of violent
crime-about sixteen times less likely than people under twenty-five,
according to statistics from the Justice Department. The news media
report these statistics on occasion, but more commonly they depict the
elderly in the manner a Boston Globe article did, as "walking
time bombs for crime, easy prey." They speciously tell their older
readers, as did the Los Angeles Times, "that a violent encounter-one
that a younger person could easily survive-may end lethally for
them: A purse-snatching becomes a homicide when an old woman falls to
the pavement and dies in the hospital; an old man is brutalized and
dies when he loses his will to live; an elderly couple are unable to
flee their home during an arson fire, dying in the flames."
Journalists further drive home this mistaken message through their
coverage of crimes committed against famous older people. After Rosa
Parks, the civil rights heroine, was beaten and robbed in her Detroit
home in 1994 at the age of eighty-one, the Washington Post talked of
"weak and elderly citizens living at the mercy of street thugs."
Although violent crime against senior citizens had dropped by 60 percent
in the previous twenty years, the Post went on to declare in an editorial,
"What happened to Rosa Parks in Detroit is a common, modern-day
outrage that quietly takes place across our land."
Immediately following the attack on Parks her neighbors had expressed
concern that media hype would further stigmatize their neighborhood
and city, and Parks herself urged reporters not to read too much into
the event. Ignoring Parks’s own view that she had been assaulted
by "a sick-minded person," reporters painted her assailant
as "a self-involved brute" who "probably thought that
as nice as all that civil rights stuff was, he was kicking the butt
of just another now-useless old lady who was holding $50," as
another Washington Post writer remarked.
To hear the news media tell it, America’s youth make a sport
of victimizing old folks. USA Today, in a roundup article on crime against
the elderly, told of Nathaniel Hurt, sixty-one, of Baltimore, who shot
and killed a thirteen-year-old boy who had vandalized his property.
Hurt said he had had enough of neighborhood teens taunting him. In their
article USA Today neither depicted Hurt’s actions as vigilantism
nor provided information about the boy Hurt murdered. Instead, the moral
of the story came from Hurt’s lawyer: "Police don’t
want to admit that elderly people in Baltimore can’t go out their
door without fear."
Crimes Nouveaux: Granny Dumping
The elderly can trust no one, politicians and reporters suggest. Everyone,
including those entrusted to care for them, and even their own flesh
and blood, may be potential victimizers.
"The American College of Emergency Physicians estimates that
70,000 elderly Americans were abandoned last year by family members
unable or unwilling to care for them or pay for their care," the
New York Times reported in an editorial that followed a front-page story
heralding a major new trend. "Granny dumping," as it was
called, attracted media attention after an incident in Idaho in 1992.
John Kingery, a wheelchair-bound eighty-two-year-old Alzheimer’s
patient who suffered from incontinence, was abandoned at a dog-racing
track by his middle-aged daughter. "John Kingery is no isolated
case," said the Times editorial, which, along with other accounts
in the media, attributed granny dumping to the strains adult children
endure in trying to care for their ailing parents.
In point of fact, however, John Kingery was a relatively isolated case.
When Leslie Bennetts, a freelance writer and former New York Times reporter,
looked more closely at the Kingery story several weeks later she discovered
that Kingery’s daughter had not been caring for her father in
the first place; moreover, she had been stealing his pension and Social
Security money. Bennetts also looked into how the Times had arrived
at the alarming 70,000 figure and discovered it had not come from the
American College of Emergency Physicians but rather from dubious extrapolations
made by a Times reporter based on a casual, nonscientific survey that
ACEP had conducted. Out of 900 emergency room doctors who had been sent
a questionnaire only 169 responded, and they reported seeing an average
of 8 abandoned elders per week. The Times reporter multiplied 8 by 52
weeks and then by 169 to produce the 70,000 statistic.
Even were this a reasonable way to come up with an incidence rate (which
it is not), few actual incidents remotely resemble what happened to
John Kingery. In the ACEP survey the definition of granny dumping was
very broad: a woman who lived by herself and checked into an emergency
room for help qualified. "Moreover," writes Bennetts in
a debunking piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, "even a cursory
check of emergency physicians reveals that the most common ‘parent-dumping’
problem is quite temporary, not the kind of permanent abandonment implied
by the Times." A typical dumping incident consists of caretakers
who put an old person in the hospital over a weekend so they can rest
up for a couple of days.
Like Halloween sadism, workplace violence, gay-pedophile mass murder,
and so many other crimes nouveaux, granny dumping was considerably less
common, sensational, or pressing than the media made out. Like other
scares about maltreatment of the elderly, the granny dumping scare played
off the younger generations’ guilt while letting the individual
reader or viewer off the hook by focusing on particularly evil people.
Even in coverage of the sorry state of many of the nation’s nursing
homes the root problems of lack of funding and inadequate oversight
disappear amid overdrawn images of evil caretakers. "We found
them coast to coast in the best of places. Thugs, rapists, suspected
thieves," blares the announcer at the beginning of an edition
of ABC’s "20/20". "We caught them red-handed
rifling through drawers in nursing homes, pocketing valuables and, worst
of all, abusing your elderly loved ones." The story, which takes
up most of the broadcast, relays incident upon incident of nursing home
aides with lengthy criminal records who allegedly robbed and mistreated
residents. "Most nursing home owners are not a bit careful about
who they hire," someone identified as a former nursing home inspector
says, and ABC correspondent Catherine Crier tells of patients being
raped and beaten.
Only in passing does Crier note that the pay nursing home aides receive
"is notoriously low" for a job that is "difficult
and often unpleasant." Nor does the report deal with problems
that, unlike rape and other forms of assault, occur on a regular basis
in American nursing homes. (According to some reports, 40 percent of
nursing home residents suffer from malnutrition, to take one urgent
No, as Crier herself says at the very beginning of her report, "This
is not a story about bad conditions in nursing homes, it’s about
bad people who end up working there." It is, in other words, another
in the endless cache of stories about villains and victims, stories
in which real people in their real complexity and the real dangers they
and the larger society face can be glimpsed only in the shadows.