I am not what you would call a Friend of Fred.
Maybe it was because I had a stay at home Dad who would take me with him as he criss-crossed the city to run errands and attend political events, but I never religiously watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up.
My early television memories are of Sesame Street, Cheers and the news. But as I’ve gotten older, particularly, after his show ended, I came to appreciate Fred Rogers’ impact, from saving funding for public television in the late 1960s to his considerable kindness to everyone. Nevertheless, having missed out as a child, I never felt a strong personal connection to him.
Until yesterday. When the New York Observer published “The Crimes of Mister Rogers: He Meow-Meow Lied to Us Meow.” Ostensibly a review of the PBS documentary, Mister Rogers & Me, Aaron Gell decides to not only tear into the documentary, but that it is high time somebody finally called out Fred Rogers for the irreparable harm he did to millions of Americans by exposing them to the negative impact television has had over the last five decades.
Gell tries to argue that Mr. Rogers “encouraged a deeply personal relationship to television that did more harm than good.”
Not only is this thesis unprovable and it’s not like Gell even tries, it is downright ridiculous. He wants us to believe that just because kids get inundated with a ton of ads – ads that run excessively on Nickelodeon and the networks during Saturday morning cartoons, it is Rogers who set those millions on a downward spiral toward commercialized zombieism. It’s a claim so astounding, I find it hard to refute in any way other than to let you just think about it for a few seconds.
You can read this poor excuse for a review if you want, or you can read this Salon article that does critique the documentary for its very evident flaws, while explaining the real impact that Fred Rogers had on generations of children. I suggest you choose the latter and to help in that choice, I’ve excerpted some of the worst low-lights from the Observer’s “review.” Stick around for the coup de grace that is the last excerpt.
By painstakingly cementing an ardent emotional attachment to the medium in his innocent viewers, he groomed us for a lifetime of exploitation.
That is some exceptionally hyperbolic imagery Gell drops on us. Its like he wants us to imagine Rogers hanging outside his windowless van, plying us with candy just to force us to watch hours of commercials once the door slides closed.
Mr. Wagner was celebrating his 30th birthday, and Mr. Rogers ambled over to say hi. (Maybe he was bored – it was just a month after he’d taped the final episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.)
There is nothing atrocious here. I just like it as an example of how Gell, who should be reviewing a documentary, decides instead to just mock Rogers for being a good neighbor.
Mr. Wagner was then working for MTV, and feeling guilty about it. He was a guy with a ‘PBS mind,’ as he puts it, ‘in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world, trying to figure out what I can do to make it a better place.
Maybe Gell has never had to take a job at the start of his career to get his foot in the door in an industry, but as a late-20 something, I know the feeling of being in a job where you know you can do more and are trying to make that a reality. I’m sure Gell has a diatribe ready to take down Jim Henson for starting his career in commercial making and how that colors everything he ever did.
Eventually, though, it began to down on many Mister Rogers viewers – maybe around the time we discovered Sesame Street – that we’d been duped. That guy in the TV didn’t know us at all!
The kicker is the line that comes after that, “WTF Fred?” Classy!
By tricking me into believing that watching his show was a genuine lived experience, he helped turn me and many other kids into perfect targets for those 1 million commercials we’d soon be exposed to.
The translation: Screw you Fred. Gell took more than two pages to draft a screed against a man who aimed to make television a positive in the lives of children. Instead of blaming Fred Rogers, maybe Gell should be taking issue with his parents decision to plop him in front of the television.
Gell’s critique is the worst kind of social criticism. It extrapolates personal anecdotes for social impacts. It is the poster child for that Latin phrase, “Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.” Gell sees something hapenning after Rogers show started to air and concludes that Rogers is nothing more than a naive peddler of child-exploiting commercials and shows. I see what has happened since Rogers show started airing and say, “Thank God for Fred providing an island of thoughtfulness in an ocean of for-profit cartoons.”
I’d hate for this post to end on such a less-than-positive note, so I believe it is fitting to share with you my favorite Fred Rogers moment, which comes from the 1997 Emmys. Take it away, Fred.