Jewish World Review March 31, 2004 / 9 Nissan, 5764

Dean P. Johnson

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My kids have been watching the news again! | My nine-year-old daughter came running up to me in a huff. "Dad," she bellowed with the cadence of a British bobby siren, "Zach said he knows where Osama bin Laden is and he won't tell."

Apparently her eleven-year-old brother, against his mother and my better judgment, had been watching the news again.

Although my wife and I have always considered ourselves adequate watchdogs of the television, keeping viewing time down to a minimum and levying significant consequences for viewing cable channels not on the "can watch" list to guard them from inappropriate messages, my son has found a loophole: the news.

Since he has begun middle school, my son has become a news fanatic. All the kids are doing it, he tells me. In fact he says his social studies teacher actually encourages such behavior. If he couldn't join in the chat around the water fountain, he'd be a total outcast. So, his mother and I acquiesce.

The problem is that network and local news only give superficial explanation of any story often highlighted by its most sensational aspect regardless whether or not that feature is essential to the story. This limited reportage can leave inaccurate impressions on youth.

For example, about a week ago, my son approached me with a concern. If the Supreme Court, he began, was going to make G-d unconstitutional, would he have to go to church on Sunday? So, I sat him down and explained how some people feel that making children feel compelled to acknowledge the existence of G-d by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is not fair while others believe that the mention of G-d is more an American tradition than a religious intention. He sat thoughtful for a moment. "Do I still have to go to church on Sunday?"

Network television news must stop skimming current events to make space for its self-promotional "news" features about upcoming programming and give in-depth coverage of all stories it decides to cover.

I am now learning, through talking further with my son, that broadcast news is becoming a pre-teen version of the Sopranos merged with Sex and the City for these kids. Not even rated T for Teen video games can compete with the graphic accounts of war, government takeovers, drug traffic, political corruption and violent crimes; dramatic hits like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin getting whacked by the Israelis; images of a teenager with a bomb wrapped around his waist, a mangled wheelchair, blood stained ground, firebombed buildings; homosexual marriages, Janet Jackson's right breast and Kobe Bryant's sex life.

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Even a story about the Pope is reason for apprehension. The other night the family was watching the six o'clock news when a story came on explaining how the Pope had come forward with a statement encouraging fertility treatments as long as sexual intercourse was the main way of conceiving a child. My son and daughter looked over at my wife and me sitting on the couch. My daughter's mouth fell agape and my son's lip sneered. My wife and I just looked at them as blankly as we could and shrugged our shoulders.

But the worst of it is that my son has now taken to using what hears on the news to completely torture his little sister. Like the other evening: We were sitting down to dinner when my son tells my daughter that if she eats what's on her plate, Israel might hit her with a missal. "That's humus, not Hamas," I yelled.

After dinner they go upstairs to play. Not five minutes later she came running down to me in a huff. "Dad," she said. "I accidentally knocked Zach's pencil cup off his desk and he called me a weapon of mass destruction."

While congress contemplates what is decent or obscene, we all need to recognize that one should expect questionable content from someone labeled a shock jock, but not necessarily from the evening news. And as for Janet Jackson and the Superbowl - my kids thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen since their father split the seat of his pants at the mall. They couldn't stop laughing.

JWR contributor Dean P. Johnson's columns appear in Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Hartford Courant, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Francisco Examiner, Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, Atlantic City Press, Philadelphia Inquirer among other smaller papers. Comment by clicking here.


03/26/04: Why are we still annoying Americans with metrics?

© 2004, Dean P. Johnson