Unexpectedly, I found myself traveling on the freeways most of last Wednesday, when the Michael Jackson story erupted into a media feeding frenzy. No matter the talk station, the conversation was salacious, incendiary, and vicious.
Certainly the allegations, if proven, are horrific. But the news frenzy is also a byproduct of our media. Live radio and 24-hour television demands that airtime be constantly filled, and a succinct account doesn’t fill three hours of a talk host’s program. And “good radio” is measured by the number of listeners riveted; Arbitron and Nielsen polls dictate the approach. The more salacious, the better.
I don’t know if Michael Jackson is guilty as charged. From his interviews, I do know that he has an eccentric understanding of the way grown men and other people’s children are supposed to interact. But that does not in itself convict him of child molestation. I know that he apparently paid someone $20 million ten years ago, in order to silence a child-molestation accusation, but that does not prove much to me. I have been a civil litigator for ten years, and I know that all-too-many baseless allegations settle for reasons unrelated to the veracity of charges. But, then again, sometimes they settle for the right reasons.
So I do not know whether Michael Jackson dunnit. And, on a much deeper level, I do not care. I do not associate with Michael Jackson; odds are I will never meet him. The chances that he would invite my pre-adolescent son to spend a night at his ranch are less-than-nil. And–most important here–the chances that, if invited, my son actually would spend a night at Neverland were, are, and always will be, never.
And that’s the discussion the media should be having about the Michael Jackson issue. What parents would allow their child, in the aftermath of prior scandalous allegations and a mega-million-dollar out-of-court settlement, to spend private time with Michael Jackson?
And what kind of parents are the rest of us? We do not know Michael Jackson, and no one of his milieu invites our children to spend the night–but ABC television does, and so does NBC, and CBS, and Fox, and the myriad cable and satellite stations. Do we know what our children are watching on television, as strangers enter our homes each night through the tube, babysitting them and spending the night with them? So many of us do not.
Earlier in my parenting years, as my daughters were growing up, I knew that I did not want them watching Beverly Hills 90210 or anything of that genre. By contrast, Cosby was wholesome. But what about the shows in between? The Simpsons seemed cartoonish and therefore fine–until we started noticing that the story lines too often carried troubling messages. Roseanne seemed funny and family oriented, but we soon determined that her boorishness did not belong in our home. Friends seemed like a bunch of nice kids who were, well, friends. But then we saw that they were also trying to get into each other’s intimate apparel.
We became censors. As Jerry Springer and Geraldo were added to the daytime schedule, along with reruns of Married with Children and so much of the network sitcom trash, that time slot also became dangerous. So we monitored. That is how we reared our children–censoring television. Even Nickelodeon, which began as a television safe haven a decade ago, soon moved into “Nick at Night.” Now, Roseanne is there–and our son is not.
In 1993, after law school, we drove from California to Kentucky, where I served a year’s clerkship for an appeals-court judge. En route, we listened to the car radio and, for the first time, I heard the pop music to which my children were subjected. I was shocked–absolutely shocked. So we moved the family to country music. Yes, country music includes lyrics about bars and drinking. But they also speak about mama and family–even about God. I would rather that my pre-adolescent children sing Garth Brooks’s “Unanswered Prayers” than Britney Spears’s latest panting and moaning.
If TV and music censorship became part of parenting when my daughters were in grade school, I now also censor videogames for my growing son. I had no idea that the evil and trash elsewhere in our culture had permeated the joystick sanctuary. But it has. Virtually every interesting game that is not sports-based glorifies anti-social behavior: racing away from the police and shooting and murdering people. Clerks at the stores have told me that some games even depict rape. Well, not in the Gamecube at Chez Fischer, they don’t.
Reasonable minds may differ on parental censorship. Not every parent would make my choices; that’s fine. But if L’Affaire Jackson teaches us anything constructive–if we are to draw anything from the story beyond the gossip–every parent must begin by asking “How could the plaintiff’s parents ever have allowed their son to spend private time alone with Jackson?” And, then–after smiling smugly at how much better our parenting skills are–we all must ask: “And what are we doing to ensure that other societal pollutants don’t poison our children’s precious minds and innocent souls?” That’s where our parenting test really lies.
–Rabbi Dov Fischer, a civil-litigation attorney in Los Angeles, is rabbi of the Young Israel of Calabasas.