Culture Notes


Issue: "Spring Draining," April 12, 1997

Cults and the new media

The mass suicide of 39 members of the Higher Source cult in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., demonstrates how the new information media can be abused. The group, which raised money by designing websites and offering other computer services, had a substantial presence on the Internet. The "Heaven's Gate" website served as a publishing center, bulletin board, and outreach tool. Most disturbingly, the cult apparently recruited new members by posting links to the website on Internet bulletin boards for child-abuse victims and people struggling with depression. Such troubled souls, apparently considered prime targets for membership in the New Age UFO cult, only had to click on a keyword and they would find themselves at "Heaven's Gate." Another part was played by talk radio. In a discussion of the Hale-Bopp comet, late night radio talk show host Art Bell received a call from a Houston UFOologist who claimed that he had photographed a large object with Saturn-like rings flying behind the comet. Immediately, the talk show and internet discussion groups were buzzing with the news about a genuine alien spaceship and the government's attempt to keep it secret. Astronomers responded to the circulating photographs by pointing out that they simply showed a star photographed with the "diffractive effect" normally filtered out by professional-quality telescopes. But to members of the Higher Source, led by 72-year-old Marshall Applewhite, who claimed to be an alien, the news was a theological catalyst. The long-awaited spaceship was finally coming for them. It was time to leave their "human containers"--that is, their bodies--and rejoin the mothership. This they thought they were doing by swallowing phenobarbital and vodka and putting plastic bags over their heads. With all of the access to vast amounts of information opened up by the new media, this gruesome event shows that discernment has failed to keep pace.

Court upholds limits on sex channels

In a rare victory for opponents of pornography, the Supreme Court upheld a federal law that would restrict sexually explicit TV channels from operating until 10:00 p.m.--even when they are scrambled. Cable companies that carry channels such as Playboy Television and Spice Entertainment scramble the signals for non-subscribers, but the audio portion and mixed-up but still-discernable visual images can still make their way into homes, to the frustration of parents. The law, originally sponsored by the liberal Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California as an amendment to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, requires such signals to be either completely blocked or to be limited to the hours between 10:00 p.m and 6:00 a.m., presumably when children will be in bed. A three-judge panel in Delaware had earlier ruled that the law was constitutional. An appeals court blocked the law, but the Supreme Court, in a one-line order, upheld the original ruling and lifted the injunction that had kept the law from being enforced. Since the technology to block a signal completely is expensive, Playboy and pay-for-view companies involved in the case have said that they would abide by the time restrictions. Playboy estimates that the ruling will cut its annual revenue of $4.5 million by as much as 25 percent. In an even smaller victory for anti-porn advocates, Sports Illustrated announced that its notorious swimsuit issue will now be optional for subscribers. Sports fans will now be able to choose whether or not to receive the issue, which has been getting racier every year.

Ratings and the forbidden fruit

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According to a new study, ratings systems such as the one used by the Motion Picture Association of America--which is the model for the new, age-based television ratings--actually attract children to programs that are bad for them. The National Television Violence Study Council, working with researchers from four universities, studied children ages 5 to 15, asking them how much they wanted to see different movies or TV shows, which were rated using eight different systems. The familiar MPAA rating was the only system that affected children's eagerness to watch a show. The more restrictive the rating, the more attractive it was. A PG-13 show was seen as more desirable than a PG, and R was the most prized of all. Children universally scorned G-rated fare. The effect, which was the same for both boys and girls, could be described as an example of the forbidden fruit syndrome. Rating systems in effect become advertisements that a program has lots of sex, violence, or bad language. Children, far from being protected by the system, use this information to seek out these programs they find titillating. Perhaps the solution would be to scrap rating systems altogether in favor of responsibility, restraint, and moral sensitivity on the part of Hollywood.


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