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Saturday, November 22, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

More About Melanie

Readers of this column could argue that, as a journalist, I missed the lead on my own column last week. If you read it, you would know that I started out, or led with, the situation in the Middle East.

Only after a dozen paragraphs or so did I get to the removal of Melanie Martinez as host of the popular "Good Night Show" on the PBS KIDS Sprout channel. She was fired because of two 30-second videos that she took part in seven years ago, long before she had any association with KIDS Sprout, that the program's management decided were "inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character's credibility with our audience."

I started with the Middle East because, even though there were not many e-mails and phone calls from viewers about coverage of the new war in Lebanon, I thought it was most important. The saga of Martinez, however, has drawn several hundred e-mails to me (about 250 so far with only one supporting the Sprout decision), some 1,700 to PBS Viewer Services (about 6 of them supporting the decision), and more than 5,000 people have signed online petitions opposed to the decision to remove her and demanding that she be given her job back.

I don't want to go back over this whole episode, but since it has engaged, and continues to engage, so many viewers I thought it was worthwhile to go over one or two things and report some added developments.

First, it is worth keeping in mind that PBS does not own this program, which is a new digital channel for pre-schoolers. Sprout is a separate company, a partnership, with its own management. The largest shareholder is Comcast. Smaller shares are held by HIT entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop.

The Sprout management, after being informed by Martinez that these earlier videos that she took part in were beginning to appear on the Internet, made the decision to remove her. Jenni Glenn, Sprout's Director of Public Relations, said, in response to a question from me, "We were not aware of the videos until Ms. Martinez told us about them in late July." PBS holds one position (occupied by PBS's Chief Operating Officer, Wayne Godwin) on the Board of Sprout, which approved the management decision, and PBS, according to its president, Paula Kerger, stands by that. So the idea of Martinez getting her job back seems like a non-starter.

Spoofs or Goofs?

The two videos at issue are 30-second spoofs — meant to be funny — of public service announcements that support teen sexual abstinence. They were made in 1999, appeared on the Web site "TechnicalVirgins.com" and they dealt with two ways to have sex, or simulated sex, without getting pregnant. Martinez portrayed a teenager in these clips, when they were made seven years ago. She was actually 27 at the time.

The removal of Martinez and the protests — some of it spearheaded by Web sites and a lot of it from parents who expressed varying degrees of outrage over the action and disappointment in PBS — attracted a fair amount of press coverage.

An article in the Los Angeles Times on July 27 reported that PBS President Kerger, who was on the West Coast at the time and was asked about this, said that Martinez had not disclosed her work in the videos when she was first interviewed for KIDS Sprout and only revealed it once they were online. She also said Martinez would likely not have been hired if the network knew about these videos to begin with.

Let's assume, as the initial KIDS Sprout statement said, that it was only after these videos were becoming available online that she told management. And let's also assume that Martinez did not disclose her work on these videos when she was first interviewed by KIDS Sprout, as Kerger said.

Kerger's statement, however, made me wonder if it carried some broader implication. Had Martinez been asked in the interview, or perhaps on a job application form, questions that would have required detailed disclosure of such earlier work? If so, that puts a somewhat different light on what might have gone into the firing decision.

Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been . . . ?

As far as I can tell at this point, however, there is no evidence that Martinez was ever asked to disclose any such matters that may have been in her background when she was hired. Maybe she was asked, or maybe it was a general question on a job application form. But nobody in present Sprout management will answer questions about this. Glenn, Sprout's Director of Public Relations, says, "The details surrounding Ms. Martinez's hiring and dismissal are personnel matters, so they must be treated confidentially." Kerger says she was not directly involved in either the hiring or firing and is referring these questions to KIDS Sprout.

If Martinez, who I have not been able to reach, was not asked about such matters at the time of her hiring in 2005, did she have an obligation to report it anyway when she was being interviewed? I'll leave that to the ethicists among us. My feeling is that she didn't. There was nothing illegal about what she had done. It was not pornographic. These were 30-second spoofs never to be seen by preschoolers. They undoubtedly would shock rather than amuse many people. But that is true of half the stuff that's on TV these days and these videos, as some viewers pointed out, could easily have appeared on something like "Saturday Night Live" on commercial broadcast television.

Despite the overwhelming mail on one side of this issue to me and PBS (Glenn says Sprout has received emails from people on both sides of the decision), my guess is that a lot of people do see both sides. It is, after all, the Public Broadcasting Service and officials here, and at KIDS Sprout, seek to guard against anything that would undermine public trust. And I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would have been very disappointed with PBS had this emerged differently and had PBS taken no action.

In response to my questions, Glenn also said: "Ms. Martinez was an important part of our network and we are disappointed that we had to make this difficult decision, but we maintain that we have acted in the best interest of the families who look to Sprout for top-quality programming they can trust. The dialogue in this video," she added, "was inappropriate for Ms. Martinez's role as a preschool program host."

"While we recognize that change is difficult for young viewers," she said, "we are committed to finding a new host for the 'Good Night Show' who will build a strong and sustainable connection to our Sprout children and families. We plan to launch a new season with a new host later this year."

When I asked what role Comcast played in the decision, she said only that the decision "was made by Sprout management and the Sprout board of directors, which includes executives from all of our partner organizations."

Actress or Host?

I also asked about something else PBS's Paula Kerger had said on the West Coast, when she was questioned about Martinez. "She's not an actress," she was quoted as saying. "She really is supposed to embody the service itself." This had confused me because Martinez is widely described in the press as an actress. "I wouldn't want to presume to speak for Ms. Kerger," Glenn said, "but I think it's fair to say that a different standard applies to Ms. Martinez's role with Sprout. An actress is playing a role whereas a host is a role model, imparting information, comfort and advice to children and their parents."

In last week's column, I concluded that, "Nevertheless, there is something very disturbing" about firing Martinez and that I thought "it would have been a greater bow to freedom of expression and against guilt by association for the program and PBS to stick by her." I still feel that way, even though it remains unclear what she was or was not asked about at her hiring interview.

It struck me as ironic that at the very time PBS is fighting against new Federal Communications Commission rulings about indecency that the network argues will inhibit documentary filmmakers and freedom of speech, it delivers a subjective punishment to a popular performer for something done seven years ago that was clearly a spoof. To me, it has too much of a whiff of after-the-fact loyalty oaths and purity checks on performers who do lots of different things.

PBS has won many plaudits in the press for its strong stand against constraints on freedom of expression in its pursuit of powerful, realistic and important documentary work. I have no doubt that had they acted differently in the case of Martinez, they would probably have attracted a lot of criticism. But I also think they would have had a lot of backers, and added to the feeling of many people that they had, in this case, too, stood up for something that also was important, but less easy to defend.


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