The latest on Jason Lind is this: He remains in stable condition in the Shriner's Hospital for Children in Boston, suffering second- and third-degree burns over 25 percent of his arms and legs. He is in pain. He feels like a fool. The former condition will pass.
The latest on MTV is this: It remains on the air, grinding up minutes and hours and days as pointlessly as ever. It is doing well financially. Its executives are proud of themselves. Neither condition will pass in the near future.
Lind is the thirteen-year-old boy who set himself on fire, or had a friend do it, after watching the host of the MTV program Jackass perform a similar act of self-ignition a month ago. The problem was that the host of the show wore a fire-retardant suit; young Lind wore a few extra layers of clothing. The host went on to perform similarly stupid stunts on the next edition of Jackass. Young Lind went onto his back in the burn unit.
And so one of society's most tiresome and misguided debates was renewed yet again: Whose fault is it when anti-social behavior on television is imitated by those who watch it? Is it television's, for presenting the behavior in the first place? Is it the viewer's, for not restraining himself? Is it the two working in perverse combination, like host and parasite?
It is, of course, the wrong question. Televised behavior always, always, leads to imitation by viewers. When I was a child watching Captain Video, I sent in for my secret decoder ring. When I watched Zorro, I masked my face and brandished my sword. When I watched American Bandstand, I practiced my moves with a broomstick and then tried them out on young, living females at the Saturday night canteen.
Here is the right question: To what extent does televised behavior influence viewers? And even more important, and nuanced: How many viewers are being influenced, and how? If the behavior is anti-social, should television refrain from showing it because one viewer in a thousand or ten thousand or a hundred thousand will copy it, either because he isn't smart enough, or parentally-supervised enough, to do otherwise?
Or to put it differently: Should television deny the many what they want to see because the few are likely to respond in a self-destructive manner?
That is the question.
The answer? Well, it depends. When the anti-social behavior is real, its broadcast can be a pro-social act for the many, informing the viewer, at a visceral level, about the brutality of war, the viciousness of terrorism, the horror of street crime. Public opinion mobilizes; laws are passed; candidates for political office are evaluated on the basis of their responses. Out of the loss comes a certain amount of gain.
But when the anti-social behavior is made up, invented for no other reason than to appeal to increasingly desensitized and sub-literate viewers; when, that is to say, the whole point of the behavior is to keep viewers viewing, minds benumbed and fingers off the remote, then one of the greatest anti-social acts of all is perpetrated: the First Amendment is dragged into the service not of free speech, but of moral corruption.
Bad taste used to be nothing more than bad taste. It was something for adults to sneer at while the kids sneered at the adults; it was the backhoe that dug the generation gap. No more. Bad taste has now become something that no one of sound mind could have envisioned. It has become dangerous. It has sunk that low.
Want to hold some hearings on the effect of TV on society, Rep. Tauzin? Forget the news chiefs and their election night fiasco. Call in the masterminds at MTV, the creative forces behind Jackass. Put them in the witness chairs. Ask them the questions.
Listen to them bray.