February 2009 Ethics Dunces

Nickelodeon and Rihanna

No doubt about it: running a kids TV show in 2009 is a lot more complicated than when Uncle Walt had children glued to the screen watching Annette, Darleen, Bobby and Doreen on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” That still doesn’t excuse rank irresponsibility, however. Nickelodeon’s brain-dead refusal to acknowledge that a man who beat up his girlfriend and the enabling girlfriend he beat up are unacceptable nominees for a televised awards show catering to teens is irresponsible and more.

To catch you up on a revolting story best followed on E! and TMZ—in other words, best not followed at all— singer and recording star Chris Brown has been charged for a violent attack on his celebrity singer girlfriend Rihanna, during which, the police report says, he bit her, slammed her head into a car radio, and punched her in the face multiple times. As bloggers posted horrifying police photos of her battered face, Rihanna apparently re-united with Brown, and is even planning to record a duet with him (a new version of the Elton John-Kiki Dee hit, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” called “Don’t Go Breaking My Face.” Okay, I’m kidding. But they aren’t…) She also refused to agree to a restraining order requiring Brown to keep away.

Both performers had received two nominations for Nickelodeon’s Kids' Choice Awards before the incident. The same day he was charged with the beating, Brown made an on-line appeal to the network’s juvenile audience to vote for him as their favorite male singer and performer of the “favorite song,” the nominated "Kiss Kiss." The show is geared toward kids ages 6 to 14, and kids can vote up until the show's March 28 airdate.

Despite the beating, the photos, the charges, the duet and everything else in this sordid situation, the network refused to pull Brown and Rihanna from the show’s awards ballot. Several petitions from parents are urging Nickelodeon to reconsider; typical is the on-line petition at twittermoms.com: "To say that either of these people [is] setting a suitable example to be held up as 'winners' is preposterous," the petition reads in part. But the network’s spokesperson dismissed the protests with this statement sent to ABCNews.com:

"Like all our KCA nominees, Chris Brown was nominated by kids several months ago based on his work as a performer, and the kids who vote will ultimately decide who wins in the category."

Dimwitted as it is, that argument might work for the Oscars. “The fact that Woody Allen chose to seduce and marry a young woman whose relation to him was essentially adopted daughter to father may be disturbing, but is unrelated to the artistic and commercial objectives of the Academy Awards.” But Nickelodeon is in the business of entertaining kids, which means that parents entrust the minds and ethical sensibilities of their still-developing children to the network’s programming for several hours a week. It cannot abdicate responsibility when it is facilitating the celebrity and approval of a violent abuser and his enabling victim.

Brown actually claims that Rihanna hit him first, and that he bit, slammed and punched her in self-defense. Fine. Throw them both off the ballot while the courts sort it out. Neither is a proper role model, no matter what the facts are. Many, probably most, children cannot compartmentalize like adults do with Woody and others. (Confession: I can’t compartmentalize with Woody either. I find it hard to find humor in the wry, ironic world view of individuals who have engaged in statutory rape and virtual incest.) To kids, Brown is either a great performer and a celebrity to be admired and emulated, or he isn’t. The show can’t honor his music without elevating his status with the young fans, and that means shoving violence against women into the “no big deal” category. Honoring Rihanna, meanwhile, will mean honoring a woman who tolerates abuse and, if Brown is telling the truth, someone who is an abuser herself. Yes, yes…it is a parental job to explain the subtle distinctions and issues as Brown and his lady love/punching bag receive their awards. But many parents won’t, and Nickelodeon can’t shrug its corporate shoulders and say, “Well, that’s not our fault! The kids voted!”

Yes, it is the network’s fault. Nickelodeon makes and uses stars and celebrities, and stars and celebrities influence the attitudes, values and conduct of young people (and a disturbing number of non-young people too.) It has an obligation not to elevate, publicize or honor individuals who may be talented and successful but not worthy of role model status. We can debate what level and variety of misconduct disqualifies a celebrity from getting a Kid’s Choice Award, but that is unnecessary in this case. Domestic violence crosses any reasonable line. And because Rihanna’s conduct indicates that she tolerates it as a victim, that is over the line as well.

As this article was being written, Chris Brown withdrew his name from the ballot, his representative saying in a release,

"Chris very much appreciates the support of his fans and the honor they have paid him in the way of nominations for Favorite Male Singer and Favorite Song. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the incident last month has shifted the focus from the music to whether he should be allowed to be among those nominated. While Chris would like to speak to his fans directly about this and other issues, pending legal proceedings preclude his doing so at this time. Once the matter before him has been resolved, he intends to do so."

Having been taken off the hook by Brown, Nickelodeon responded, "We are confirming that Chris Brown has decided to withdraw his nominations from the Kids' Choice Awards. We agree with and respect his decision, and are looking forward to presenting a great event for our audience."

They “agreed with his decision” but wouldn’t take any responsible action themselves….and it’s their show! Pathetic. Cowardly. Clueless.

Nickelodeon’s executives should be able to understand that letting kids honor the likes of Brown of Rihanna is the equivalent of endorsing domestic violence.

If the network’s management can’t comprehend that, they are in the wrong business. Nobody should entrust the minds of their children to Ethics Dunces.




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