It is easy to tarnish a reputation
I read a lot of news. I check home pages compulsively, keep an embarrassing amount of tabs open in Chrome, watch for the stories’ development and read feedback in the comments section. More than a healthy amount of that reading is media related and I follow the careers of entertainers, thinking I have a feel for the behavior of people I’ve never met. I don’t think I’m alone, either, as this seems to be true of many people with an Internet connection or who stand bored in the check-out line at the supermarket. All that scandal saturation makes it hard to be surprised by the story of the week, as readers are reminded time and time again that nobody is perfect.
Most headlines this week focused on the affair of former CIA Director David Petraeus. His infidelity was surprising, but a government official having an extramarital affair is hardly lacking in company. While that story held the top half of nearly every home page, a much more disheartening story was buried several notches below, the subject of which was Kevin Clash.
He may not have the same name recognition as a four star general, but it would be nearly impossible to find someone unfamiliar with Clash’s work. As the voice of Elmo, he is one of the most famous puppeteers and voice artists on the planet. The character he created has brought millions of children joy, millions of parents joy sometimes (at least as long as an episode of “Elmo’s World” lasts) and many more people happiness from the single existing character, Elmo.
Clash is known as a talented professional and a genuinely great guy. Last year, he was the star of the documentary “Being Elmo,” a film that told the story of his career. It’s hard not to walk away with a sense of the passion Clash has for the work he does every day. The audience sees Clash living out his dream, honoring the responsibility to his audience, staying humble and sharing his gift with his peers. It’s inspiring to watch Clash do the work he was born to do, and if all this sounds a little over the top you should really see it for yourself (it is available on Netflix).
This week, Clash was accused of having a relationship with an unnamed underage boy and for the first time in a while I found myself impacted by a scandalous headline. I’ve come to admire Clash, and the idea that he would have a relationship with a minor seemed to go against everything I knew about what Clash and “Sesame Street” stand for.
It went against it, but I hesitated because nothing is impossible.
Clash maintained that while he had had a relationship with the accuser, he had not been underage and that the relationship was consensual. A day later the accuser came forward and recanted his statement, admitting that Clash’s portrayal of the relationship was accurate. Still, it seems even the suggestion had the power to damage Clash’s strong reputation.
It’s hard to admit that a lie can affect the way we see someone. Intellectually, I believe “Sesame Street” when representatives from the TV franchise say they investigated and found no wrongdoing (outside of the Internet usage policy), I believe that the accuser meant it when he recanted his statement, and I believe that Clash is guilty of little more than having a personal life.
At the same time, it is difficult to defend anyone accused of a crime like this because, what if it is true? Victims shouldn’t have to fear coming out against an abuser just because they are popular or powerful. It takes bravery for victims to come forward and we often hear of stories where their courage is returned with skepticism, insensitivity or even open hostility. Initially, the facts weren’t all present and I would hate to deny such an abuse of trust just because I really like what I know about Clash.
In this case, it turns out that the accuser’s legal representatives had zero proof that their client had been underage during their relationship in the first place, according to the New York Times. Despite this, Clash now has an alleged lie that existed in the public forum for a whole day, which associates him with things people would have never associated him with before. Hopefully, as time passes, Clash will be able to distance his name from the entire incident, but it’s hard to believe it will ever be completely forgotten.
I’m someone who increases traffic on stories like this all time, but cases like Clash’s make me aware that my media consumption habits create a market for something I wish didn’t exist. Clash doesn’t offer his personal life up on reality TV, he didn’t actually do anything wrong and there was no evidence to suggest that he had. Legally, we live in a country where citizens are innocent until proven guilty, but in the court of public opinion an allegation is often enough to cast doubt on a person (and their reputation) for a long time to come.
Molly Boushell is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.