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Jul 22, 2013

Magazines don't kill people, bombs do

Rolling Stone made alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev its cover for this month's edition. But why are we all so outraged?

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US magazine Rolling Stone released its latest cover, and the image of alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gussied up to better resemble a model from a MacBook Air advertisement than a suspected nutter stirred disquiet.

But not too much, actually. Not unreasonably, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called the cover “out of taste”, and certain chain stores in the state banned the item from sale. The outrage-economy crashed and burned rather more quickly, with much of the action unfolding on the magazine’s Facebook page. Almost as soon as social media had rubbed itself predictably raw with the assertion this winsome pic could only result in more violence, traditional US media answered with a resolute: “No it won’t”.

With their fondness for certain freedoms, US writers tend to downplay the influence of media in general and, indeed, of the influence of their own work.  For all its flaws, the North American worship of the individual does allow for the possibility of a will slightly freer than the version we understand here in Australia. In this nation, we believe our actions to be shackled to The Media as surely as our white ancestors were manacled to Mother England.

In the US, criticisms of a cover of the Tsarnaev type are likely to be no more strident than “that sends the wrong message”.  Here, media has much greater accountability. We media workers don’t “send the wrong message” so much as we cause actual imitative violence. This is as true in Anne Summers’ latest outing The Misogyny Factor as it was in the colony of Victoria in 1889 when Customs Minister James Patterson seized the works of Emile Zola — “the more subtle and deadly infection of French literary vice to be emptied … into the imagination of our children”.

Just as it is Summers’ belief that “true equality of the s-xes”, including economic parity, is significantly impeded by media aimed at older, working-class men, Patterson believed that French novels would corrupt our young. Our distaste for “inappropriate” works is one thing; our widespread belief that these items can and do have real-world outcomes is quite another.

During the campaign for an R18+ classification for video games, we heard in the most unambiguous terms that Grand Theft Auto kills. Former SA attorney-general Michael Atkinson said of his famous long-term refusal to support the category: “The repeated act of killing a computer-generated person or creature desensitises children to violence.”

Atkinson went on to pass some risible laws banning internet commentary during the state election. And it’s here, really, where he might have actually stumbled upon a far better way to control the outcome of public behaviour through censorship. Certainly, media — either social or traditional — can impact our short-term behaviour.  It can make us purchase a particular brand of washing powder or vote for a particular party.

But it does not make us r-pe and kill.

Despite the view of Summers, Patterson and any of those protesting Bill Henson’s famous 2008 images — these wowsers include former Australia Institute head Clive Hamilton and current Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — art and other media tend to influence little but short-term decisions.

The view that Alan Jones or Kyle Sandilands, for example, build a particular morality is widespread in Australia.  In the US, where both the idea of free will and the possibility of more politically niche news and entertainment services are greater, the influence of media is viewed with a little less concern.

Henson’s images do not result in damage to children. S-xist cartoons do not reproduce unequal wealth. Airbrushed villains do not cause massacre.

The simple view of cause-and-effect is tempting. It would be nice to think that the culture’s most repugnant ills could be cured by a wholesome media. But censorship is not now, nor has it ever been, a panacea.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian.

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