The Press-Enterprise
January 28, 2003

Case brings new look at TV violence
'The Sopranos': A plotline on the cable hit is linked by police to a murder. But can a show ever be to blame?

By Michael Fisher and Mark Petix

The dismemberment of a slain Riverside mother is renewing debate about television violence after police accusations that her two sons tried to disguise her identity by mimicking an episode of a wildly popular cable show.

Jason V. Bautista, 20, and his 15-year-old half brother, Matthew Montejo, are accused of killing Jane M. Bautista, cutting off her head and hands and dumping her body along the Ortega Highway. Jason Bautista told investigators he saw the same type of mutilation depicted in an episode of "The Sopranos," an HBO series about a Mafia family.

HBO will not comment on the alleged connection between the killing and "The Sopranos," said Tobe Becker, vice president of media relations in New York.

Critics and family-values groups are making such a connection. Entertainment executives and media experts counter that millions of law-abiding people watch shows or films daily without becoming violent.

"They didn't wake up one day and watch "The Sopranos" and say 'Today is a good day to knock Mom off,' " said Brian Dyak, president and chief executive officer of The Entertainment Industries Council, Inc., a non-profit group of trade leaders who promote the understanding of health and social issues in their industry.

Dyak said television, movies and popular music are easy scapegoats, allowing people to avoid probing questions about the backgrounds and moral upbringing of alleged perpetrators.

"What role did their parents play? What kind of experience did they have in the school system. What involvement did they have with law enforcement, the courts, government? The entertainment industry is only one small piece of what is a fairly complex societal puzzle," Dyak said.

Aggressive behavior

But research shows a direct connection between repeated exposure to violence in film, television and video games and aggressive behavior, said Bill Maier, vice president, psychologist in residence with the ministry-based Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.

The research also shows those exposed to repeated images of violence are less likely to feel empathy or an emotional connection to others, Maier said.

Maier said it is much too early to tell whether television violence played a role in this case.

"Certainly I think people are looking at a cause and effect relationship in a story like this," Maier said. "It's not as simple as that. Plenty of young people see 'The Sopranos,' and they may have seen that episode, and they haven't gone out and killed Mom."

But Maier said a news report that the mother had been repeatedly heard yelling at one of her sons, if true, is interesting.

"It seems there was already a conflicted relationship here," he said. "Whatever might have pushed these boys to the limit, we don't know. But we do know the idea they came up with to dispose of the body came specifically from 'The Sopranos.' We've got a definite issue here."

Jason Bautista told investigators that he and his half-brother were emulating an episode of "Sopranos" when they dismembered their mother in an attempt to prevent authorities from identifying her body, Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona said Monday.

Television violence has been shown to be a risk factor to the health of developing children, adolescents, and to the stability of their families, according to the American Psychiatric Association's Web site.

Robert J. Thompson, professor of communications at Syracuse University, said the idea that two young men could have used a television show as a blueprint for murder is shocking.

Get the facts

But he cautioned against blaming TV before all the facts are known.

"Clearly, when someone commits a horrible crime like this they will do it with the methods and ideas they have at hand. If you were to commit such a crime at a 17th Century French farmhouse you're probably going to do it with a pitchfork. You don't blame the farm . . .

"The first question shouldn't be what the TV did. The first question, if it's true, is what was wrong with these kids that they decided to do such a horrible thing?" Thompson said.

Thompson expects critics of television violence to focus on this case as another example of the entertainment industry's influence on youth.

Backlashes are expected, he said. "With Columbine, it wasn't 10 minutes before it was the violent video games. They didn't mention they had access to an arsenal of guns."

Bob Waliszewski, manager of Focus on the Family's youth culture department, said the entertainment industry's influence can be positive and negative. But in the Bautista case, watching "The Sopranos" showed it is possible to get rid of a body without being caught, he said.

"Maybe Mom's giving us a hassle and we decide to take her out," Waliszewski said. "That doesn't look convincing at this point. But isn't it possible someone could also learn that this is a way of getting away with murder? The answer is absolutely."

Professor Joe Saltzman, associate dean as USC's Annenberg School of Communication, scoffs at the idea of blaming the media for copycat crimes.

"People who commit these atrocities are . . . influenced by more than what they see in television or the movies," Saltzman said. "The greatest influence on young people is their family and their peers, not movies and television."