Attorney General Janet Reno's challenge to the entertainment industry to clean up its act regarding gratuitous television violence is exactly the kind of principled stand a public official ought to take on an issue that affects her department.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop used his office as a similar bully pulpit to proselytize against cigarette smoking and to speak out forthrightly about the steps needed to combat the spread of AIDS. He was roundly criticized for his views but his message came through loud and clear. Let us hope a similar success attends Ms. Reno's latest efforts.
Ms. Reno said the industry has got to do a better job policing itself if it doesn't want the government to do the job for it. Her critics have accused her of threatening government censorship. But the measures she seemed to have in mind probably would pass constitutional muster and are already being considered by Congress. One would ban violent programming when children make up a substantial portion of the audience. Another would require federal regulators to rate television and cable programs for violent content, and a third would force broadcasters to warn viewers before showing programs that contained violent scenes.
Determining exactly what constitutes "violence" and how much of it is too much of course raises many thorny problems. It's likely the courts ultimately would have to step in resolve such questions. Still, when the motion picture industry was faced with a similar prospect 20 years ago it chose to adopt voluntarily many of the same self-imposed restrictions now being proposed for broadcasters. While the system hasn't worked perfectly, it has shielded Hollywood from the heavy hand of government censors. A similar self-restraint by broadcasters and cable operators would be far preferable to direct government regulation.
The most problematic aspect of Ms. Reno's proposal may ultimately have less to do with the principle she is espousing than with sheer volume of material on 500 cable channels. Even if the government wanted to it would be hard pressed to police this deluge of words and images.
There are many reasons for the upsurge in violent crime besides television, not least of which concern the erosion of values and the disintegration of families. But clearly the tube has an impact on the development of young people. That television should take responsibility for the enormous influence it wields is an entirely reasonable position for the nation's chief law-enforcement officer to take, and one we hope the industry will heed.