Burriss on Media: Media & Turmoil

Sep 19, 2012

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  In what may be an apocryphal story, Abraham Lincoln supposedly greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Toms’ Cabin,” as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

True or not, the strongly abolitionist book is just one of a string of books and movies that has outraged the public, and caused people to blame the media for violent behavior on the part of opponents.

In 1915 the movie “Birth of a Nation” sparked riots and demonstrations across the United States. Certainly the movie is overtly racist, and it features sympathetic scenes of slavery and a vengeful lynching.

A radio program in 1938, “War of the Worlds,” led to nation-wide panic by listeners who thought the program was describing a real Martian invasion. But in-depth research showed many listeners brought the panic on themselves.

Now a movie, and I use the term loosely, “Innocence of Muslims,” has sparked riots and killings around the world. Wait, let me rephrase that: people have chosen to riot and kill in response to the movie. The movie has not made anyone do anything.

Let’s be very clear here: certainly media can have an influence on what we do. There is an entire industry, advertising, designed to get people to do things, namely buy products. And sometimes media will reinforce pre-existing tendencies in some people, who will then act out violent activities.

But there is a world of difference between suggesting someone buy a tube of toothpaste, and causing people to take the streets to burn, loot and kill. And even in the case of someone acting out what they see on television or in movies, there is invariably some kind of underlying pathology or psychotic break.

In the case of offensive speech, we usually hear the refrain that the book, movie or television program has “caused” someone to act badly, and it is often suggested the speech in question be banned. But actually, that is the very speech that needs protection. After all, the majority view, the popular view doesn’t need protection, since it is the majority speech.

But don’t forget, it’s very easy for your majority position to become the minority. And where would you then be without protection?

I’m Larry Burriss.