Back in the early 90s, at WEWS-TV in Cleveland, I instituted "The Fritz Rule."
Fritz was my five-year-old nephew, and the rule went something like this: "I don't want to see anything on our newscasts that I'd be embarrassed to have to explain to Fritz."
I don't want a five-year-old watching a story on Monica Lewinsky and asking, "What's oral sex?" I don't want to talk about what Michael Jackson may or may not be have been doing with little boys in his bed. I don't particularly want to have a conversation about uncovered, bloody bodies at the scenes of car wrecks. I don't want to have to explain the pictures from Abu Ghraib Prison, so keep the photos off my air or put a disclaimer in front of them three times the size of an interstate billboard.
I've talked here before about television as a "truth detector," and about "Eyewitness News," which was designed to let viewers experience the news as close to first-hand as possible. An argument can be made that the "Eyewitness" concept doesn't allow for either toning down or cleaning up the harsh realities of life.
That may be so, and I may be a hypocrite. But just as people can't reclaim their virginity, you can't give children back their innocence. I did grow up in a more innocent time. We didn't lock our doors. The keys were left in the car. We trusted our neighbors, and thought that the world was a safe place. Maybe we were delusional back then, but now I hear words on TV that I personally didn't learn until I was hanging around the locker room with the rest of the jocks in high school—and later! If I don't want to explain to a child that there's no Santa Claus, why should I have to explain what "nappy-headed ho" means?
I don't have any hard, fast answers here. I know that we do good by warning children of the dangers of the Internet and sexual predators and drug abuse and drinking and driving. I'd just like to hope that before we put things on the air we mull them over a bit and consider their deeper meanings and the impact they can have on impressionable young minds. So I think about my little nephew.
Fritz, by the way, isn't so little anymore. He's 17 and a high school sports star heading into his senior year. He probably knows more cuss words and more about sex than I knew when I was 21. But he didn't learn from me!