What do children think about the unsavory affairs in Washington that now hold the nation's attention hostage? Linda Ellerbee wanted to find out, so she did the logical thing and asked them. The result was a commendable "Nick News Special Edition" called "The Clinton Crisis," which aired last night without commercial breaks on cable's Nickelodeon channel.
Ellerbee announced at the outset of the half-hour that the discussion would deal with "issues" raised by the scandal and not with its much-reported details: "It will not be sexually explicit," she promised in an opening advisory, urging children to invite their parents in to watch with them. In a taped background report, Ellerbee said President Clinton was accused of "acting improperly" with Paula Jones and that he had "behaved improperly" with Monica Lewinsky.
She never got much more specific than that, but the kids, all apparently from the New York area, had obviously all been exposed to Kenneth Starr's smut-stuffed report via TV or the Internet or both. They were, like Queen Victoria, not amused.
Joining Ellerbee and sitting with the kids in the Nickelodeon studio was Katie Couric, one of the ablest and most affable personalities in modern television. Couric was underused but it was nice that Ellerbee introduced her as "a journalist and host of the Today' show," not the co-host. A Washington attorney, Reid Weingarten, was also on hand to explain the impeachment process and delineate what exactly is at stake for the president and the nation if the House goes ahead with the process and the Senate holds an impeachment trial.
Sometimes the children were remarkably pithy and on the button. When Ellerbee asked, "Is the president above the law?" a girl responded: "No. The law is above him." A boy said of the president, "He can't lie like the rest of us, 'cause he's a role model." A girl said that if a person cheats on his or her spouse, "it'll haunt you forever."
Like many adults, some of the children felt they had learned far too much about the president's private life and its tawdriness. "I don't think Congress should have voted to release all that stuff," one boy said.
Couric had a great question for the group: Do those on-air warnings about explicit material ahead encourage children to change the channel or to stay and watch? Said one boy, with whom the others seemed to agree: "It makes me watch every time they say that. . . . It keeps you in suspense, like, what is it they don't want you to see?"
One could logically infer from this that the so-called parental guidance ratings now affixed to TV shows -- soon to be enforced with an insanely Big Brotherly device called a "V-chip" in new TV sets -- will make adult programming more attractive to kids and not less. Chip or no chip, they'll find a way to see what's labeled as forbidden.
Ellerbee sometimes seemed to be quizzing the kids rather than conversing with them, which was unfortunate, but she co-produces as well as hosts the "Nick News" series and specials, and for the most part she's done a superb job with them. The series has also been, not so incidentally, great public relations for the cable industry, which, like Clinton, needs all the forgiveness it can get. Unfortunately, Ellerbee took it easy on independent counsel Starr Unfortunately, Ellerbee took it easy on independent counsel Starr and didn't ask the kids any questions about whether his investigation was really a hatchet job. But then, she couldn't ask everything, could she?
None of the children thought Clinton should be forced out of office, though one boy suggested a six-month suspension, as in maybe pro boxing. Ellerbee said it was an interesting idea but that the Constitution did not allow for it. A girl said Clinton should resign "because he lied, and we don't know if we can trust him" anymore.
If Clinton will "make up for what he did," said another girl, "the people will forgive him." Two of the boys thought the president had endured "enough punishment" already.
Smart kids. Smart show. Smart programming. Good TV.