I've been haunted the last few days by a guest column I read on dallasnews.com earlier this week. The opinion piece, written by software engineer Alan Mi, outlines why he took part in a November protest at the local ABC-TV affiliate's offices in downtown Dallas. Mi explains in his column "Why Asians won’t just move on after genocide joke," that it was not right for the network to air a children's segment from Oct. 16 on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. The network has apologized for the broadcast. (Deadline.com's report with full text of apology.)
In the skit, young children appeared on a panel with Kimmel as moderator to talk about the issues of the day. Kimmel asked the panelists what to do about the money the United States owes China? A 6-year-old unscripted contributor suggested that America "kill everyone in China."
Since the show aired, protests at ABC-TV news sites have been held in Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and New York. "I joined a protest on Friday, Nov. 1, at the WFAA [-TV] site in downtown Dallas," Mi wrote. "I am just an ordinary Asian-American. I’m not an organizer; I’m not extreme in my views."
Mi's piece was the first I'd heard of the incident. After reading it I did online searches hoping to find a news story account. I didn't find much mainstream media coverage of protests or news stories about fallout from the show. The Associated Press through The Hollywood Reporter ran a story on the ABC apology, which according to the AP occurred Oct. 25, about two weeks after the airing. The apology came after protests and complaints erupted from the Asian American community and Asian organizations.
In the op-ed column, Mi calls the lack of an appropriate response on ABC's part a "massive insult" to the Asian community. Mi and others from the Chinese community have said that ABC's apology is not adequate. In the video of the segment posted on Deadline.com, Kimmel appears to be going along with the child's suggestion, causing Mi and others to conclude that it was more important for him to get the laughs. The late night comedian chuckled aloud in response to the youngster's proposal and responded with "that's an interesting idea."
Later in the discussion, after other children around the table suggested their ideas for solving the debt problem, Kimmel canvassed the panel: "Should we allow the Chinese to live?" With conflicting responses, the kids continued to debate the topic until Kimmel wrapped up the session, suggesting a gummy bears break.
I've been reading the comments on the sites that have covered this incident from tabloids such as the New York Post to entertainment outlets. Reactions have ranged from, the protest is "political correctness gone horribly wrong," to the other side , those that believe the airing goes too far. Some that commented dismiss the matter altogether because it involves kids.
The problem I have with the controversy centers around the children. Lay aside the politics and economics of Big Business and government, and look at this squarely on the basis of humanitarianism. What should rattle everyone about this incident is that there were young impressionable minds in the mix. Yeah, kids can be adorably cute and brutally honest while saying inappropriate things (adults, too, for that matter), but a 6-year-old can't be held responsible for his actions in this context. Someone needed to be the grownup in the room.
I hope that ABC wishes it could take this episode back. The Jimmy Kimmel Live show despite the name airs on a delayed basis. In a responsible and reasonable world, this could have played out differently, particularly since the network has removed the video footage of the skit from its archives anyway. Nixing the segment in the moment and privately explaining to the young panelists why ethically it was the right thing to do could have led to an excellent teachable moment, as corny as that sounds.
We know as adults that genocide crosses the line and that debt and the global economy are challenging and daunting topics. But a kid can't reason the same way. As playful as such kid segments seem, common sense has to prompt adults to resist heaping on already over-wired small children issues that are too confusing for them to understand and therefore out of reach in their overall development.
Here's another thought. I found the segment uncomfortable to watch and plain not funny, and I'm an easy target when it comes to kids entertainment. In his column, Alan Mi writes, "We cannot tolerate race-disparaging attitudes to get laughs. This is racism under the cloak of entertainment. It must be stopped."
I can't help thinking about the vintage show Kids Say the Darndest Things. TV's beloved Art Linkletter created the early reality spot in the 1960s where kids got to speak their minds on many topics. (Watch Bill Cosby's tribute to the iconic show.) Linkletter had a nice touch. He understood that kids do say the darndest things. Think he also understood that when the prompting goes too far innocent people can get hurt.