Years ago I was fortunate enough to be executive producer and writer on the TV series "Fame." It was set in the semi-fictionalized School of the Arts in New York City and dealt with the hopes and aspirations of the students as well as their angst and interplay with the school's faculty.
While the series was on the air and for years after its demise, I would receive letters from educators telling me how much the series had meant to them; some said it even had served as a template for some schools across the nation to initiate similar arts programs. I would then do my wholly hypocritical "aw-shucks" routine--hypocritical because inwardly I was quite pumped and proud that I apparently had been able to accomplish something in this worthwhile arena.
While in this insufferable mode, I would sometimes mention these letters to others who do what I do for a living and their reaction was uniformly touched. What a fine thing, was the thrust of their response. Isn't it fine, they would say, to see what we who work in television can actually accomplish? (We honestly talk like that; that's why we're always giving awards to one another.)
But that reaction creates a nagging question in the back of my mind: If the creative community is allowed to take credit for good things brought about by imaginative and courageous presentations, why are questions regarding any negative effects our productions might generate met with denials that these efforts have no effect whatsoever? How is it that the mass communications monolith can be founded on the simple premise that we will, to some degree, mimic what we see on the screen, and yet deny any culpability for the brutishness and dumbing-down we see on all sides?
The response to charges of that nature involves more finger-pointing than an animal-rights activist in a slaughterhouse. It's drugs. It's Clinton. It's rap. It's Bush. It's Madonna. It's the thinning ozone layer. It's anybody but me, anything but my show, anywhere but the channel that broadcasts my work.
Sure it is.
We have a hydra-headed monster and no quick fix exists. But if there is any kind of corrective awareness out there, it will be found by taking the simple first step of acknowledging that we have had a tangible effect, one that hasn't always been the best for our kids, for ourselves, for the "sun'll-come-out-tomorrows" we're so fond of promising.
In Secretary of State Colin Powell's autobiography, he refers to a TV movie I wrote years ago, a movie he showed to his troops as a military officer in order to foster healthy race relations in the ranks. I felt good about that. Still do.
Yet if I'm entitled to some pride in "Brian's Song," what is appropriate to the fact that I, never having fired a gun in my life, have nevertheless written countless cop shows and westerns where the good guys and bad guys spend the last reel striving mightily to blow each other away. What pride am I entitled to feel about the countless fistfights and brawls I've hammered out, stuntmen hurtling through candyglass windows, whiskey bottles thrown and smashed over heads, chairs splintered over skulls?
Do only positive portrayals have an impact? In my estimation that's not likely, especially if you factor in the changes seen in our world during the past few decades. It just needs to be said in a straightforward manner: The people creating mass entertainment are involved, are a part of it and are culpable. It's imperative we take a simple first step and acknowledge that hard fact. Part of me fears it's already too late.
A few television seasons back, I had the great good fortune to work with the late Richard Farnsworth, an honest and immensely talented man, a quintessential Westerner, proud of that heritage and true to it in all respects. One of Richard's joys was hunting. I loved hearing him talk about it, not sharing in the expertise or experience, but taking joy from his joy. Richard was puzzled, not disapproving but deeply puzzled, when he learned I had never gone hunting in my life. Surely, he said, I must have gone hunting pheasants or rabbits with my Dad when I was a boy.
Must have taken a .22 and plinked away at squirrels.
Must have taken a BB gun and tried to pick off crows perched on a telephone wire.
Richard's expression was one of honest and caring concern. "Damn, Bill. You've got to kill something before you die!"
Richard, I'm afraid I already have.