Lost children

We live in a nation that has just sentenced a 12-year-old boy, less than 5 feet tall with an IQ of less than 60, to a maximum-security juvenile facility. It is not a proud day.

No matter what your view on either the necessity or the appropriateness of this measure, we can all agree that this child was failed by his parents, teachers, social workers, and society.

Of course, there are no simple answers as to why a child becomes a killer at the age of 10; his companion, who was 11 when the crime was committed, has an IQ of 76, flunked every subject in the fourth grade, was passed on to fifth grade anyway, frequently ran away from home and slept in abandoned buildings, and has a father in prison who taught him to fight when he was 6. Killers and lost children both.

No simple answers. But more and more experts are saying that television has replaced the family as the single strongest influence in a large number of children's lives. So many come from single-parent families, and while their sole parent is away working, they are left for hours on end with only The Box for company.

And The Box's single strongest message is acquire, acquire, acquire--things to make you fast, things to make you strong. Things will make you attractive, things will bring you friends, things will make you happy, things will give you control, things will bring you love, things make you successful.

Now take a look at what happens in Washington when the Good Guys try to set aside a smidge, just a tiny smidge, of time on television to educate children. God knows it's certainly farcical enough, but it's not funny.

Westinghouse Electric Corp., which is taking over CBS, announced that it is voluntarily increasing educational programming from one hour a week to two hours in 1996 and three hours in 1997. And did our solons applaud this magnificent gesture? They did not.

"Blackmail!" cried the Republicans. "Outrage!" Poor, pitiful Westinghouse was having its tiny corporate arm twisted out of its tiny corporate socket by the likes of the Center for Media Education, a nonprofit group that tries to bring children's needs into the debate over telecommunications.

The Center for Media Education is, of course, a flea compared to the Westinghouse elephant, but Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Jack Fields of Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications (and No. 1 recipient of telecom PAC money), claimed that forcing CBS to show three hours (!) of educational programming a week is "legalized extortion."

You see, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt, a Clinton appointee, is well-known--I suppose we should say notorious--for supporting educational programming for children. (It's shocking, I know, but these things do happen.) And Westinghouse needs a few waivers from the FCC in order to take over some CBS stations. Ergo, the Republicans believe that CBS caved in on children's programming in order to get the waivers, and they found this so obnoxious that they demanded an investigation of the Center for Media Education!

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sponsor of the Children's Television Act of 1990, said to The New York Times, "How mangled have the morals of this town become when only special interests seeking profits are allowed to participate in the license renewal and transfer process?"

Yeah, if you're not a greed-head out for yourself, what are you doing trying to lobby in Washington?

You'll be happy to learn what has become of the aforementioned Children's Television Act. When it was passed, stations claimed they were providing 3.4 hours of educational television a week--but that included such thought-starters as "G.I. Joe" and "The Jetsons." According to a new study out of the University of California at Santa Barbara, stations still claim they provide 3.4 hours of educational TV a week, but that includes "America's Funniest Home Videos," "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," and "Yogi Bear." Oh well, he's smarter than your average bear.

The study also shows that most stations provide only 2.1 hours of educational programming and most kids watch more than 20 hours a week. The problem, of course, is that good educational programming is expensive to produce and is not commercial. That's why "Sesame Street" is on PBS. In addition, the TV industry provides lower budgets to what they call "FCC-friendly" or "compliance" programs, and runs them at 5 or 5:30 in the morning.

If you've ever observed a kid watching a "Sesame Street" alphabet segment suddenly crow, "E!" in response to some goofy song, you know what "learning-ready" means. That delighted, high-pitched "E!" is a lot easier to take than the sight of a 3-year-old, thumb in mouth, huddled under his snugly blanket, watching a rape scene in a gangbanger movie.

Television is now running an ad that tells you buying a Cadillac will give you more control. Actually, sending a letter to the FCC supporting more and better children's programming will give us all a lot more control than that Cadillac.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1996 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins