Vice President Dan Quayle's attack on "Murphy Brown" wasn't the first time in this election year that the administration has blamed prime-time TV for large social ills. And it isn't, arguably, the silliest attack leveled on Hollywood from the vicinity of Pennsylvania Avenue.
At a convention of religious broadcasters a few months ago, George Bush told his audience, "We need a nation closer to 'The Waltons' than 'The Simpsons.' "
For folks who were worried about a vice president incapable of distinguishing between a make-believe TV character having a make-believe baby and reality, the Bush statement should be truly troubling. At least Murphy Brown is played by a real person, Candice Bergen. The Simpsons are cartoon characters.
There are, though, serious media and social issues related to such attacks and all the flap over Quayle's remarks. They concern how little we really know about TV -- even after all the years it has spent at the center of our culture -- and how easily it can be used for scape-goating and demagogy. Quayle said that a make-believe character on TV having a baby out of wedlock glamorizes "illegitimacy" and encourages real teen-age girls to have babies out of wedlock. He also suggested such shows are undermining family values and are responsible for a host of societal problems.
No one will ever accuse Quayle of being a media scholar. And, maybe, we have come to expect such uninformed generalizations from him. But, in the endless volumes of reaction published and aired to those remarks, very few news organizations -- ABC's "Nightline" being a notable exception -- sought to find out if TV really works the way Quayle says it does.
TV does not work that way, said Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches television at the University of Maryland at College Park. "In fact, there is lots of evidence that young women are not going to rush and have a baby just because they see a character like Murphy Brown have a baby on TV."
Parks teaches courses in television and children and television and gender. She said there is research which shows that "really little children will look at [make-believe] TV parents as normative." But, she added, by the time children are 13 years old, real-life "peer groups and family are far more important." In other words, 13-year-olds get their primary social clues from places other than TV.
That doesn't mean TV doesn't play some role. But Parks and other communications and culture scholars contacted yesterday agreed a wide range of questions have to be answered before you can say how TV affects viewers -- and Quayle didn't even ask the questions.
One of the first questions is that of audiences. What audience, what kind of people, are we talking about? Who is Murphy Brown allegedly influencing? The notion of the TV audience as one monolithic herd of sheep docilely waiting for a huge hypodermic injection of messages and values from TV is about 30 years out of date.
Since teen-agers make up the largest segment of the unwed mother population, that seems like it would be a logical group to worry about.
Except teen-age girls don't watch "Murphy Brown," according to A. C. Nielsen. While "Murphy Brown" will finish as one of the five highest rated shows with overall audiences for the 1991-92 season, it will finish near the bottom of 80 shows with teen viewers.
So, how can teen-age girls receive this horrible message, if they aren't watching?
And how about African-American viewers?
There were several levels to Quayle's remarks. He calculatingly plugged into a mainstream mentality of bias that automatically links babies born out of wedlock and unwed mothers to the issue of black families. Did you see all the black women interviewed in reaction to Quayle's remarks?
But the link was made, and, so, the question has be asked: Do a lot of blacks watch "Murphy Brown?"
Again, the answer is mainly no. While the show is top five with overall audiences, it finishes near the bottom when you zero in on African-Americans.
So, who does watch "Murphy Brown"? Nielsen research shows the "Murphy Brown" audience is mainly white women in their 30s, 40s and 50s -- women like Marilyn Quayle, the vice president's wife. Do you think the vice president really believes someone like his wife is going to run out and have a baby out of wedlock because she saw Murphy Brown have one on TV?
Maybe Bush and Quayle can get elected by beating up on make-believe TV and cartoon characters, like Murphy Brown and Bart Simpson. But the high-priced image-makers at the White House are probably going to have to do a better job of basic nuts-and-bolts audience research if they are going to find this year's Willie Horton hiding in prime time.