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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Enough Jackasses to Go Around

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

At last report, 13-year-old Jason Lind was lying in a hospital bed in Boston, suffering from second and third degree burns after copying a stunt he saw on MTV's popular "Jackass" TV show. The show featured a guy wearing a flame-retardant suit and hanging steaks on himself as friends cooked him on a human-sized barbeque. On the show, they sped the steak-cooking along by squirting lighter fluid on the human spit.

Jason wanted to try the stunt, so he and a friend went out behind his house, where a friend poured gasoline on Lind's feet and legs and set him afire. Oddly enough, the fire not only got out-of control quickly, but also severely injured the young lad. He's now in critical but stable condition. His 14-year-old friend was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment, but there's no suggestion whether Jason himself will be charged with terminal stupidity when he emerges from the hospital.

(I apologize for calling the child "stupid" if he truly cannot tell reality from make-believe. There ARE such people in our world - folks who have a diminished capacity for processing or separating TV from the actual world. These kids are laboring under a severe handicap, and I'm not trying to make fun of THEM. The fact that Jason had the assistance of a friend in his little backyard experiment - coupled with the reaction of his father and absence of any diagnosed mental illness in those concerned lead me to believe that this is not the case here).

Jason's dad, apparently refusing to take responsibility for teaching his son the explosive properties of gasoline or the questionable fun-value of setting oneself on fire, is blaming MTV for the incident. He's threatening to sue.

MTV and the producers of "Jackass" say that they run a warning before and during each one of their shows: "The following show features stunts performed by professionals and/or total idiots under very strict control and supervision. MTV and the producers insist that neither you or anyone else attempt to recreate or perform anything you've seen on this show." They then air such riotous gags as turning a porta-potty upside down with someone inside of it, having their host dive into a sewage tank, and putting a fake baby in a car seat perched atop a car and then driving off to see people's reactions.

What comedy!

All this has, of course, sparked anew the debate about kids tragically copying stuff they see on TV shows (Remember the kid who set his trailer on fire after watching Beavis and Butthead or the 13-year old in Florida who was just convicted of murder for practicing wrestling moves on a 6-year-old who died?)

But this is more than a legal battle, and more complicated than simply a First Amendment discussion.

There are those who argue that any 13-year-old who sets himself ablaze copying something he saw on MTV is something of a moron. The show (and common sense) both issue warnings against such stuff. If we tried to idiot-proof our airwaves, we'd have nothing at all on TV except bowling, talk shows, and golf. Geraldo, Oprah, and Springer would be out of jobs. Fox Networks would go out of business. You can't protect people from themselves.

OK. Granted.

But . . .

Have you ever in your life done anything you've been specifically warned against doing? Let's see a show of hands out there. I thought so. That's the nature of human beings.

And I don't think you can aim a TV show at a target audience of pre-teens and teenagers, put it on the "teenage channel" of MTV, glorify dangerous, silly, and idiotic behavior, and then claim it's OK because you run a warning about not trying the stunts at home. I submit that running a warning you know is going to be ineffective is about the same as running no warning at all.

We copy stuff we see on TV. All of us do - that's the whole point behind advertising. See the guy drinking that beer talking to the sexy girl? Well, maybe if I drink that beer, that will happen to me! Invest with this company to become rich, use that toothpaste and you'll look like him, eat at the same sub shop as that guy and lose weight.

Ever play cowboys and Indians when you were a kid? Cops and robbers? Well, we didn't get those ideas from our own experience or from books, did we? We got them from TV and copied what we saw.

And although (thankfully) no permanant injury resulted from our pranks, I think I recall trying to give my brother an eye poke a la Three Stooges once.

We all imitate stuff we see on TV, even if we're NOT morons.

So MTV's claim that they're not responsible for this rings hollow here, I think.

No, I don't think the father should sue, nor should he get any money. I'm not talking about legal culpability here, but moral responsibility.

You can't glamorize, sell, and make a bazillion dollars off dangerous behavior and then walk away when that behavior spreads because you told folks not to do it at home.

I hope that Jason Lind recovers from his burns, and that the only long-term effect of his stupid stunt is an inability for him to reproduce (both his father's actions and his own suggest that we don't need more of their seeds in our gene pool).

MTV ought to cancel the show (on their own - not as the result of a lawsuit or legislation) because it's stupid and endangers the feeble-minded (of which we apparently have more than an adequate supply).

There's more than one "Jackass" in this story, it seems.

And more than enough blame to go around.