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MTV Continues Anti-Violence Effort
by Lynn Elber
Associated Press, National
May 25th, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) - As MTV prepared to tape the latest program in its anti-violence campaign, the urgency of the issue was again made clear: Six students had been shot at a Georgia school.

"Unfortunately, I'm watching it right now on CNN," MTV President Judy McGrath said as last week's tragedy unfolded. Another troubled student, another spasm of violence, another devastated community.

On Friday, MTV will offer "Point Blank," a round-table discussion of gun control moderated by MTV News' John Norris. If the program matches the quality of the cable channel's other specials on violence, it will be worth watching.

In the torrent of words that followed Columbine High School's unspeakable agony, some of the most illuminating were heard on MTV. The channel was not part of the pack attempting to fix blame for the attack or exploit it - it was ahead, and thoughtfully so.

In April, two days after the Littleton, Colo., campus shootings, MTV aired "True Life: Warning Signs," a sensitive and constructive look at a teen-age couple's suicide, a boy who averted tragedy in his life and a school shooting.

Evan Ramsey, an Alaska teen-ager convicted of murdering his principal and a fellow student in 1997, was among those profiled. Ramsey, serving a 210-year sentence, offered advice to other desperate youths.

"The situation now, even though it's bad, the aftermath is even worse," a tearful Ramsey said. "You have to tell somebody. It may seem that there's nobody that cares. There is; there is somebody that does care. I realized that too late."

Despite the timing, "Warning Signs" was not a quickie response to Columbine, just as "Point Blank" is not directly tied to the Conyers, Ga., shooting. They are volleys in MTV's carefully planned counter-violence effort involving such diverse contributors as the Justice Department and artists Lauryn Hill and Tori Amos.

"Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence" is intended to help MTV's young viewers understand and prevent violence in their lives and their world. The first program looked at the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.

While critics slam MTV and other elements of popular culture for creating a climate of violence, the music channel is trying to be part of the solution by examining the deeper and more realistic causes of youthful turmoil and potential tragedy.

"Point Blank," to be taped Wednesday for its 8 p.m. EDT Friday airing, was to include as panelists David Kennedy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government; James Fotis, executive director of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America; musician John Popper of Blues Traveler; and the mother of a 10-year-old gunshot victim.

Last year, when MTV was weighing its next public service campaign - following such efforts as "Rock the Vote" - it based its choice not on headlines but on viewer research, according to McGrath.

"The response was undeniable: Violence was the No. 1 thing on our audience's mind," the MTV president said. "I was distressed because I thought, 'This is hard. It's tough.' But it's what they're talking and thinking about, so we have to do it."

One finding that stood out for McGrath was that two-thirds of those polled said no one in their home or at school had ever had a serious conversation with them about violence.

The channel's research also showed that young people felt they were being excluded from the national debate, said Stephen K. Friedman, MTV's vice president for public affairs.

"It seemed like there was a natural role for MTV to highlight what they had to say about the issue and also how they could take a stand and to show solutions," Friedman said.

MTV developed the campaign in partnership with the federal departments of education and justice, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Psychological Association, the Recording Industry Association of America and other groups.

Among upcoming specials: "Scared Straight! '99," in which convicts confront young lawbreakers to try to break the cycle of crime; an update on child abuse victims previously profiled; a look at the rising number of hate crimes; a special edition of the "Unfiltered" series in which young people are given a camera to document violence in their lives.

MTV also has created and is distributing a free 'action guide" that outlines ways young people can reduce violence in their community and lists resources available to them.

Sweetening the guide: A CD featuring songs from Hill, Amos, Alanis Morissette, Backstreet Boys and more, and comments from the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch and others. Copies are being distributed at concerts and are available from MTV.

Is there a conflict between the channel's role as a peacemaker and the music videos it plays - some of which have been criticized as violent?

"I really do believe that the vast majority of the audience trusts us and likes us because we play the music they like and we believe they can handle the music we play," McGrath responded. "It doesn't glorify or suggest that violence is a solution.

"The trend in music is very much pop, very much positive."