Game over: Hard economic times mute kids' video critic

From a few offices on the Fairview Health Services campus in Minneapolis, David Walsh and a staff of eight have battled the nation's $20 billion gaming industry and Hollywood media moguls for 15 years.

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David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family, went through papers, magazines and books as he boxed up his office.

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From a few offices on the Fairview Health Services campus in Minneapolis, David Walsh and a staff of eight have battled the nation's $20 billion gaming industry and Hollywood media moguls for 15 years.

But the National Institute on Media and the Family is preparing to close next week, another prominent Minnesota nonprofit crushed by the recession. Gaming industry blogs are shouting "good riddance,'' but many parents, teachers and community groups are wondering who will now lead the charge against TV and video violence.

The institute has been one of the nation's leading watchdogs of electronic media, arguing that too much screen time harms children, especially if the content is murder and mayhem.

Walsh, its founder and president, has carried this message to literally millions of parents, teachers and health care providers in person, in the press and via appearances on PBS, CNN, NBC and far beyond. The institute's claims to fame include a video game "report card" and the industry recall of a "Grand Theft Auto" video game. The future of this watchdog work worries Minnesotans who embrace the institute's message and who consider Walsh one of the state's most important parenting gurus.

"It's a huge loss, especially for parents,'' said George Bickham, parent involvement coordinator for Perspectives Inc, a St. Louis Park family service agency.

"I worry about how I'll keep up with the media; every day there's a new TV show coming out, a new video game,'' said Bickham, who had received regular updates from the institute and relied on its annual "video report card.''

A 'constructive gadfly'

The institute is among several high-profile nonprofits, such as the Minnesota Senior Federation and Centro Legal, calling it quits in 2009. In the institute's case, it hopes to find organizations to continue the work -- but without Walsh.

Among a handful of media watchdogs in the nation, the institute is closing at a time when children spend an average of 44 hours a week in front of a screen -- TV, computer or video games, said Walsh.

Unlike the larger Parents Television Council, which attacked the media from a moral perspective, the institute focused on the health risks associated with exposure to media and media violence and side effects including violent behavior, bullying and obesity.

Its biggest moment in the national spotlight came in 2005, when the institute revealed that "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" contained hidden sexual images. Soon Walsh was in Washington, standing with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as she called for tighter regulation of the video game industry.

The gaming industry accused Walsh of distorting the effects on children. Andy McNamara, editor of Minneapolis-based Game Informer, said Walsh and his supporters didn't get it.

He compared video games with other entertainment forms, including comic books and rock 'n' roll music, that were blamed for corrupting minors when they first came on the scene.

Doug Lowenstein, the founder of the Entertainment Software Association also faced off against Walsh in national press conferences, congressional hearings and other events. Nonetheless, Lowenstein sent Walsh a note when the center announced its closing.

"I think David played the role of constructive gadfly,'' said Lowenstein, who now heads the Private Equity Council in Washington, D.C. "While some critics called video games "murder simulators,'' he brought his message in a way that was measured and careful and constructive.''

An accidental activist

Until the mid-1990s, there was no national organization devoted to spreading information about the health impact of media on children, Walsh said. The ball got rolling in 1994, after Walsh published a book entitled, "Selling Out America's Children,'' which landed him on a Bill Moyers PBS television special.

Soon the American Medical Association asked Walsh, at the time a psychologist at Fairview, to create a media guide for medical professionals. Next the staff for then-vice president Al Gore invited him to a national family conference. Walsh made several suggestions at the conference about how to raise "media-wise'' children.

"The vice president looked at me and said, 'Why don't you do it?''' recalled Walsh. "I thought, 'OK. Why don't I do it?' On the flight back to Minnesota, I jotted down some thoughts for creating the institute ... Fairview approved it within the week.''

Reflecting on the years since then, Walsh says he's particularly proud of the institute's pivotal role in establishing a national rating system for video games. He's also proud of the scope of its work, reaching tens of thousands of parents and educators about smart ways to use the Internet, video games and TV at home.

Le Creche Early Childhood Centers in north Minneapolis are among the child care centers that adopted the institute's recommendations after meeting with Walsh. Le Creche centers have no TVs and limit screen time on computers -- which are only used for educational games, said founder Phyllis Sloan. Parent information packets contain tips on positive screen habits. Monthly family forums often feature an institute speaker.

"Parents may see an advertisement on TV, or just see something on TV, and inside themselves are thinking, 'That's not right,' said Sloan. "They're looking for acknowledgment that it's OK to say 'No.'''

Sloan worries that if the institute closes, child care providers will no longer have access to speakers and guides to everything from YouTube to social networking sites.

Two years ago, the Minnesota associations of elementary schools principals and secondary school principals launched a campaign based on Walsh's book, "Say Yes to No,'' inviting every teacher and parent-teacher organization in the state to read its advice on setting boundaries for kids.

"We don't want to lose the momentum behind those important initiatives,'' said Joann Knuth, executive director for the elementary principals group.

Major funder cuts back

Money troubles hit when the institute's principal funder, Fairview, faced its own belt-tightening and slashed its support to focus on more essential health services, said Walsh. Fairview historically covered about a third of the institute's $2 million budget and paid for basic operating expenses.

The wide variety of the institute's programs -- from video report cards to anti-obesity program for kids -- also may have made it hard to target fundraising efforts, some nonprofit leaders speculate.

The doors to the institute will close Dec. 24. The board of directors is meeting Thursday to review the half-dozen proposals from both local and national agencies interested in taking on all or part of the institute's work. A final decision is expected next year.

Walsh, meanwhile, intends to help transfer the work to a new agency and will continue writing and speaking on an issue he's come to personify.

"When I started this, people would ask, 'Does the media really have an impact?''' he recalled. "Now they ask, 'What can I do about it?'''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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