ONE OF THE more heated meetings of The Sun's editorial board in recent memory occurred a few weeks ago. The editorial cartoonist said he could hear the commotion from his studio way down the hall.
The debate wasn't about the presidential primaries. This was weeks ago, before things got a little interesting. The stadiums? Nope, since most of the board couldn't understand why the state with the most successful baseball park in America wouldn't relish an attempt to strike gold again.
Our argument was over the V-chip and ratings for television shows. I think both ideas are ridiculous. That was not a comfortable position to take since a.) my boss strongly felt the opposite, and b.) what ignoramus would defend television?
It's a cesspool. It's a monster. It's poison. Every politician in the land -- from Clinton to Dole to Quayle -- knows TV's a fine whipping boy. It's panderer's box. The feistier the criticism of it, the louder the applause. With my contrary view, I felt like the ACLU defending some pornography sleaze.
But my V-chip virulence isn't rooted in fears over censorship. Rather, it's that the clamor for a V-chip and ratings sends the wrong message. It suggests that we parents are powerless to set our kids straight; that TV must become a more obedient baby-sitter; that we'd love to raise our children right if only we had H-E-L-P.
I find that argument more contemptible than the trash on TV. Here was the president in his State of the Union address stating that being a parent is one's "most basic human duty," then requesting the broadcasters' guidance to raise our children.
Philosophically, I don't have a big problem with voluntary ratings, except they seem unworkable and unnecessary. Who is going to review and rate the 618,000 hours of programming, by one tally, plus re-runs and old movies? Ratings have proved their worth in the cinema, but movies are different. They're one-shot deals whose titles often betray their content. TV, on the other hard, is a grid of running series. It should not take most folks a New York minute to know whether they want their families watching "Geraldo!" or "NYPD Blue."
The "busy" defense
Today's parents, we're told, are too preoccupied to separate the wheat from the chaff. Such a burden. When the children of a welfare mom go astray, she's a lout. When the progeny of the middle or upper class cause trouble, lack respect or show aggression, their parents are "busy."
Truth is, today's parents have help that wasn't afforded their own folks, from day care and fast food to educational software and VCRs. (Admittedly, there's much less family support than before. Perhaps a D-chip -- to slow divorce -- might repair that.)
A V-chip won't stanch the river of commercials -- the breakfast-cereal spots that tell little kids their teachers and parents are dorks, or the sneaker commercials that suggest to teens they're worthless without "the shoes." Only a fool would deny that the mass media glamorize violence, but it's only one factor. The kids on my block who play-act they're "Power Rangers" are the ones least apt to pick a fight.
Listen to Peggy Charren, whose 30-year-old Action for Children's Television group was a driving force for the 1990 Children's Television Act, which sought to ensure educational programming for children. The V-chip and ratings, she says, "have nothing to do with providing choices. They have nothing to do with serving children, or helping them to grow up healthy, wealthy and wise. I'm beginning to feel like a pariah on this."
The TVs in our homes already come with V-chips -- the on-off switch. And they already have a ratings system, just like everything good or evil that our children confront in this world. It's "PG," for parental guidance.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.