Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Path of Least Resistance: PBS' Firing of Melanie Martinez

Melanie Martinez, host of the nightly PBS "Good Night Show" for toddlers, was fired on July 14 for videos made seven years earlier that spoofed government-sponsored teen abstinence PSAs and had been removed from the website two years ago. The videos had resurfaced on YouTube, Google Video, and other locations, and PBS Kids Sprout, a joint venture between PBS, Hit Entertainment, and the Sesame Workshop, stated that "the dialogue in this video is inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character’s credibility with our audience." What's most interesting is the intense scrutiny this decision has faced among parents, who have largely rallied to support her and petition for her reinstatement.

The New York Times took pains to point out that the videos were not pornographic, which may seem irrelevant to free-speech advocates but is significant to parents. Instead, the two 30-second films were moderately crude attempts at satirizing abstinence policies by applying standards of "technical virginity" through the advocacy of alternative sexual behaviors. (You can watch the two videos here and here.) Parents also pointed out that the videos were made several years ago, that they had been voluntarily taken off the internet when she took the position with PBS, and that the audience the network was purportedly protecting was highly unlikely to encounter her other work and thus lose confidence in her character's "credibility." Indeed, it seems far more important to parents that Martinez was good at her job and helped her kids get ready to go to bed; as a practical matter, many parents wondered aloud what they would have to tell their children now that she had disappeared from their nightly bedtime ritual. PBS says they plan to have the show back on in a few months with a new host, and that reinstatement is not an option.

I have never seen the show, and personally find a television tuck-you-in to be a bit galling. But I do understand the significance of ritual in helping a child prepare for the long, dark night that interrupts personal freedom and contact with a toddler's loved ones. Melanie Martinez was one guide across that River Styx, just as a nightly reading of her favorite books is for my own daughter.

The firing has many people wondering about the integrity of PBS' recent promise to stand up to government censorship. The network recently announced aggressive plans to shield viewers from obscenities in nonfiction programming by digitally obscuring the mouths of speakers in addition to clipping the sound channel. With the firing of Martinez, the network, which has a seat on the PBS Kids Sprout board and unspoken additional influence as the broadcaster of the partnership's offerings, seems to be thinking very strategically about which battles it wishes to fight, and which it fears will blow up in the network's faces. Had Martinez been kept on, her position would undoubtedly have become that much more cannon fodder for those who would sink the ship of public television for good.

As for the "public" in public television, most of us have been through this before. When NPR fired "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards back in 2004, listeners unleashed a torrent of protest. The "public" institution hunkered down and sat it out, declaring that Edwards would be a frequent commentator and giving him an official "dinosaur" send-off by having him report on the legacy of World War II the day after he stepped down. As far as I can recall, we never heard from Bob Edwards on NPR again after that. PBS plans to do the same thing here. They figure that whatever they're suffering now, however unexpected the outcry, is better coming from devoted viewers than from those who already hate them. Viewers like you may withhold donations, but conservatives who see public television as a last bastion of big government - well, they call their congressmen. It's a curious way to pander, but there it is.

Melanie Martinez is not alone: The internet puts us all between a rock and a hard place. On one side is anonymity, which requires us to withhold our name from our opinions but diminishes their weight. On the other is the permanent record that the World Wide Web keeps of everything you say that has your name attached to it. Everyone has something they wish they had not written or said, and the web makes thoughtless words impossible to escape; the irony is that many who choose anonymity online are thus emboldened to say things that no one would say if they knew it could be linked to them personally. Even worse than a rash opinion coming back to haunt you is a clear error in judgment (see Thomas Hawk's post yesterday on photographer K3v1n C0ra22a for a fine example). [Ed. note: K3v1n has moved on with his life and doesn't deserve to be saddled with this post's high position in Google search results. I have preserved his name encoded here for the sake of posterity - call it the historian in me - but you won't find it that way through Google search anymore.] That said, I see no real reason why Martinez should regret racy satire she did seven years ago, except that it has now cost her a role she clearly loved.

The PBS ombudsman has some good (if belated) commentary on this issue, including a discussion of the question of Martinez's rights as an actress. If you'd like to comment to someone on this situation, I'd suggest Sandy Wax, head of PBS Kids Sprout. Faxes, phone calls, and letters are better than email.

Sandy Wax
PBS Kids Sprout
2000 Market Street, 20th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Phone: 215-667-2750
Fax: 215-667-2701

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