HI, I'M JOHNNY Knoxville and this is Extreme Irresponsibility.
It happens far too often in our society that parents will seek to shift the blame for their own incompetence from themselves to the media, or even more obnoxiously, to "society." You and I know how absurd this is, but it makes for an interesting story, so most news outlets will continue to publish this plea no matter how ridiculous it gets.
By now, most of us are familiar with the planned lawsuit on behalf of Jason Lind, a Connecticut 13-year-old who set himself ablaze while mimicking a television stunt. This is the latest installment in a trend that dates back to the time when rock 'n' roll was "the devil's music." Parents, rather than blame themselves for their own lack of attention to what their children are up to, choose to blame someone else, anyone else for this mistake. I's a practice that has become as American as apple pie. Only this time, the effect isn't so positive. If Lind's lawsuit succeeds, it will send a disturbing message. It will prove that gross irresponsibility on the part of parents and teenagers is not only acceptable, it can even be profitable.
The program in question here is MTV's "Jackass." This show is arguably the funniest show to come on television in years. It isn't for everyone, but I have yet to find a program that makes me laugh harder for 30 minutes. Snobbish television critics and self-appointed moral authorities might not like it, but that is simply more evidence of the show's high quality. There is little about the show that is not funny. From the hilariously fake names ("Johnny Knoxville," "Ross Angeles") to leading man P.J. Clapp's wardrobe of "U.S.A." T-shirts and red Las Vegas visors to the well-chosen background music - it is all funny. But in life, anytime something this good comes along, it is just as certain that someone will attempt to ruin things for everyone else.
I feel sorry for Jason Lind. I hope he fully recovers from his injuries. But his misbehavior and his parents' lack of knowledge of his actions are in no way valid reasons to seek damages from MTV for broadcasting this show. MTV, for its part, could not have been more responsible in warning viewers not to imitate what they were seeing. At the beginning of the show and after each commercial break, we see that same warning, complete with skull and crossbones. In addition, MTV guarded against any attempts at imitation of "Jackass'" antics by attaching another statement onto the show explaining that it will not open any submissions from fans, "so don't even bother." The program does not come on until after 9 p.m. on Sunday nights, so many parents can be there to turn the TV off if they see their children watching.
One can certainly criticize MTV for the content of some of the more violent or dark-themed videos it broadcasts, but as far as "Jackass" is concerned, the network has been as responsible as any reasonable person could ask.
This isn't to imply that the media is always without blame. By profiting on messages of violence and self-pity from the Eminems and Marilyn Mansons out there, certain record labels and other entertainment sources deserve a share of the blame for some of the outbreaks of violence in the past few years. But susceptible kids can listen to those anytime they want to and easily can do so despite parental supervision. "Jackass" is different because it is a television show broadcast at a reasonably late hour for an adult audience. If parents do not know what their child is watching at 9 p.m. on a school night, that is their problem, I'm sorry to say. MTV is not at fault here. The media-appointed Senator of Morality, Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is far, far too intelligent to have said that MTV was negligent in this case.
MTV should take a strong stand here. What is at stake is not just free expression, but the very question of how much caution entertainers have to use in accounting for just whom is in their audience. The overwhelming majority of "Jackass" viewers are adults who would not dream of setting themselves on fire or trying to jump a sidewalk in a grocery cart. The dangerously poor judgement of one young teenager should not punish the rest of us. As always, the responsibility falls on parents to determine what children should watch. Had MTV broadcast this program during after-school hours when parents are not necessarily at home, instead of late night when most parents are, Lind would have more of an argument. But as this was not the case, Lind and his father have no one to blame but themselves. If this lawsuit proceeds and is successful, it will send the signal that parents have no responsibility for what their children watch on television. And what a sad day it will be for our society.
(Timothy DuBoff's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)