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June 01, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Our Town: Saving kids from media Our Town: Saving kids from media (June 01, 2005)

by Don Kazak

The TV in Jim Steyer's home doesn't get turned on during the week. When his children want to watch something on weekends, they must convince both Steyer and his wife, Liz, that it's a good idea. Same for computer and video games.

And his concern doesn't end with his own kids.

Steyer, a lecturer in political science and education at Stanford University for the last 18 years, is on a mission to protect children from inappropriate and violent media content and programming.

That doesn't include just TV programming, but also movies and video games.

Steyer isn't a Bible-thumping member of the Christian Right, though.

"Look, I'm a progressive First Amendment lawyer," he said. "That is what I teach at one of the finest universities in the country."

Steyer, 48, once clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Allen Broussard, during which he helped write two landmark First Amendment decisions, and also was a co-founder of the East Palo Alto Community Law Project.

Steyer gained some note when he wrote a book, published in 2002, "The Other Parent: The Inside Story of Media's Effect on Our Children." He was even on Oprah's TV show.

While doing the research and working in two children's related groups, Steyer became aware that no one was taking time to rate media -- TV programs, movies and video games -- in a thoughtful way that could be a guide for parents.

"A lot of people said to me, 'How come you're not doing this?'" he recalled. So, about two years ago, he helped form Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org), a San Francisco-based non-profit company and Web site.

"We're Consumer Reports meets AARP," Steyer quips, referring to the consumer magazine and the vigilant lobbying group for seniors.

Except his group is about kids, and parents.

"We're building a mass constituency base of concerned people," he said. "This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, this is not a liberal or conservative issue. Everyone cares about it and there's a tremendous amount of consensus around some things that would be good."

The Web site rates media for kid-appropriateness, with a "on" icon, a "pause" icon, or an "off" icon.

Last week's posting, for instance, rated 11 current movies. Only one, "Mad Hot Ballroom," won a "on" icon. Two movies, "Mindhunters" and "House of Wax," received "off" icons, and everything else got a "pause" icon.

The reviews are written by three editors and 25 freelance writers. Viewers can read the reviews, then offer their own comments, which are also posted. "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" had a "pause" icon. But 166 adults also wrote comments, as did five kids.

Steyer's daughter, Lilly, 12, and his son Kirk, 10, also contribute comments.

Common Sense is striking a chord. The Web site already has 1.1 million regular users, Steyer said. Its goal is to reach 25 million users within five years.

Media companies are also taking note.

Common Sense already has a deal to put its reviews on Netflix movie rentals, and the Associated Press wire service will start distributing its reviews to AP-member newspapers.

The large media corporations have always used the First Amendment as a defense to criticism that some movies and video games are too violent for young people. That's an argument Steyer, as a First Amendment lawyer, is eager to take on.

But no one is taking him on.

"There has been almost no criticism because we are about sanity, not censorship," he said. "This is why we have the potential to be such a potent public voice.

"Common Sense is the media industry's worst nightmare, because we know the law better than they do and we're more progressive First Amendment advocates."

Steyer, who becomes animated and passionate when talking about kids and media content, reaches near-lift-off excitability when video games are mentioned.

"You think I believe the videogame industry gives a hoot about the First Amendment?" he asks, his voice rising. "All they care about is their profits."

He believes Common Sense is filling a void no one has tried to fill before, with its goal of helping parents make informed media choices for their kids.

"There's no right answer," he added. "I'm not telling you what your 8-year-old should do, but here's the information, and make a thoughtful choice."

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.


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