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Biden reportedly sees no legal obstacles to taxing purveyors of violent media

Joe Biden
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Before you start reading, let’s get one thing straight: there really isn’t any news here. What we’ve got amounts to hearsay from secondhand sources based on off the record comments made by Vice President Joe Biden that may well have been taken out of context. I present the below information to you readers as a jumping off point for a discussion, not as an accounting of facts. The facts here are inconclusive at best. Now then…

Vice President Joe Biden suggested in a meeting with religious leaders and prominent members of faith-based organizations that “there’s no legal reason why” taxes couldn’t be levied on purveyors of violent media, according to a report from Politico. The comment came in response to a query from Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

“He floated the idea that media and entertainment that portray violence should be subject to a special tax, with the proceeds going to help victims and their families,” Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld said of Graham’s comments. Requests for comment sent to both Graham’s office and Biden’s office were not responded to.

Biden reportedly went on to tell the gathered religious leaders that he’d need to see an in-depth examination of how violent forms of media influence young minds before such a measure could be considered. 

Let’s straighten a few things out before we dive in to discuss this. First of all, there was no media presence at this meeting, and all of the information is coming from attendee recollections rather than recorded minutes or any other form of hard evidence. Many aren’t even firsthand sources, so you’ve got Schonfeld describing what Graham said, and then Politico reporting on it.

No foul to Politico here, but that is what we in the press call thirdhand information. Telephone can be a fun game to play, but its existence is based on the principle that message and meaning change as it travels along through a string of increasingly removed sources.

What’s more, multiple attendees – five, according to Politico – admitted after the meeting that Biden specifically asked that his comments remain off the record. So much for that. The Vice President reportedly made it known to those present that he’d prefer not to be misquoted in the press, and that the best way to ensure it was to keep his comments during the session off the record.

It sounds like certain religious leaders won’t be receiving holiday greetings from the White House this year.

Kidding aside, it’s important to keep all of this context in mind as you consider the implications of Biden’s comments. The Vice President isn’t necessarily coming out in support of placing a tax on violent media, nor is he saying that he wouldn’t support it. He merely stated that there is no legal obstacle as far as he can see it that would automatically disallow such a thing.

I’m no legal expert, but that assertion doesn’t exactly add up. Wouldn’t violent media be protected under our basic rights to free speech and free expression? As far as video games are concerned, the question of whether or not they exist in the same realm as non-interactive forms of entertainment has already been addressed by the United States Supreme Court, most recently in their 2011 ruling on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. Games are indeed protected, the ruling states.

Look, there’s no denying that this is a tricky situation. Incidents like the Aurora, Colo. and Sandy Hook, Conn. shootings, as well as the recent bombing of the Boston Marathon are terrifying to consider, and finger-pointing is a natural response. It’s easy to look at the violent images on the news and draw links between them and the sorts of things we’re accustomed to seeing in mature-themed entertainment, interactive and otherwise.

Biden’s call for more research, deeper research, conclusive research is a familiar tune in the land of politics. There is no hard evidence that violent images in entertainment can function as a principal cause of violent behavior in the real world. Many would argue that the lack of evidence is due to the fact that there isn’t a case to build here. That some people are just inherently pushed toward violence, as a result of a chemical imbalance or poor upbringing or some other profoundly damaging factor.

It’s an old question, and as an offshoot of the nature vs. nurture debate in the field of psychology, it is one that likely won’t ever be answered definitively.

I think it’s important to not read too deeply into Biden’s alleged comments. The suggestion that taxing violent media is legally kosher in a technical sense seems completely implausible, but we don’t have the entire picture here. We don’t know exactly what was said, and without that context we’re just opining on and poking at a half-delivered argument that might not have actually been an argument at all.

Why then are we here talking about this? Well, I’d like to hear from you readers. What do you make of Biden’s purported comments? What are your thoughts on the idea of taxing violent media? Can you see any way that such a measure could be sold as constitutional? Hell, are we foolish to even discuss this news of the day, since on one level we’re simply perpetuating the exact sort of misquotation that Biden was trying to sidestep? We want to hear from you. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Adam Rosenberg
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends…
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