February 20, 2006
Focus on the Family and The Dangers of MTV!

Maybe this is a little off-topic, but considering how focused we are on the entertainment industry and that it even involves one of our corporate partners in research here at C3, I just felt I had to write something, and this seems to be my best venue.

The topic is Dr. James C. Dobson, the brain behind "Focus on the Family."

For those of you who don't know, I write a weekly column in The Ohio County Times-News in Hartford, Ky., called "From Beaver Dam to Boston," which follows my travels from Kentucky, the place where I was born and raised (kudos to O Brother, of course), to MIT. Directly under my column every week is a column by Dr. Dobson, sponsored by the local Lawton Insurance. No one is willing to sponsor my column at this point, so I don't know what that means...

Dr. Dobson's column this particular week was about today's music lyrics leaving negative impressions. He shows how the contempt for parents in modern popular music reflects a dangerous shift in societal values and respect toward elders, evidenced by this unshakable bit of empirical evidence:

When Dr. Dobson was young, one of the most popular songs was Eddie Fisher's "Oh, My Papa," an ode to someone's deceased father and how good he treated his children. Then, in 1983, Suicidal Tendencies released "I Saw Your Mommy," which documents the narrator's watching someone's mommy bleeding to death.

Dr. Dobson's conclusion includes this: "My point is that the most popular music of our culture went from the inspiration of 'Oh, My Papa' to 'I Saw Your Mommy' in scarcely more than a generation."

Who is the cause of all this? Why, MTV, of course, which "promotes the worst stuff available." Good to know that, while some people fear that a 20-some-year-old MTV now part of a corporate conglomerate will lose its edge, Dobson finds that the network is producing "the worst stuff available." And Dr. Dobson finds that "many of the problems that plague this generation, form suicide to unwed pregnancy to murder, can be traced back to the venom dripped into its veins by the entertainment industry."

What's the point of sharing Dobson's words of wisdom in this particular forum? Possibly because I got a letter pointing out to me how are columns are adjacent to each other...perhaps because sharing just makes me feel better. But I am a strong proponent of free speech, and Dr. Dobson can feel more than privileged to share this view, and Lawton Insurance can feel more than privileged to pay for it. Of course, he may be equally appalled to know that his article runs next to someone studying pro wrestling and soap opera, in a media studies program at MIT and...gasp...partnering in research with his dreaded enemy.

But Dobson's point has two major morals for those of us interested in studying the entertainment industry and mass media in a little bit more of a nuanced approach. First, there are powerful voices like Dobson's out there always calling for censorship and for restrictions on freedom of speech, but we are currently blessed with many great entertainment venues taking a stand for shows that embrace a variety of viewpoints, from The Passion of the Christ to Brokeback Mountain to Dr. Phil to Sleeper Cell.

And, second, beware of taking evidence at face value. This semester, Henry Jenkins has assigned my class to read Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics. Yet there are plenty of people who offer "irrefutable evidence" as weak or weaker than Dobson's "proof" at the change in the music industry in a generation and plenty of people who believe it without skepticism. I'm not trying to deny that Dobson may not have a small point somewhere in his tirade. But his argument is like trying to balance a Mack truck on a toothpick's worth of evidence, and there are plenty of people who accept it without a second look...

No matter who we are, on whatever side of issues related to the mass media and the entertainment industry, we need to take a more nuanced approach, explore the gray areas and always...always...be skeptical, lest the Dobsons of the world always pass themselves off as the gospel.


On February 24, 2006 at 7:11 PM, Steve Lindsey said:

Dr. Dobson has a point. I, myself, grew up with great metal lyrics like "I Saw Your Mommy", and the youth today have filth like Britney Spears and Nelly. God help us!

Although I did not read Dobson's criticism, I feel well-positioned to make my own criticism of him and his readers. After all, how many Dobson readers actually watched Brokeback Mountain or listened to a Suicidal Tendencies album? Not many, I suppose...of course, the intent of Dr. Dobson isn't really to change anyone's mind. Ideologues of this sort are typically preaching to the choir. Statistics are notoriously abused by ideologues when trying to prove a point.

Trying to link popular music to the cause of suicide and unwed pregnancies is flat out ludicrous. There is certainly no way of proving his hypotheses. His message does serve two distinct purposes, rallying the base and lining his own pockets. Lawton Insurance knows its clientele, and in some circles has garnered respect of the community for promoting "wholesome family values."