Guilty Conscience?

MTV does an about-face with a tele-film on the Matthew Shepard case and the launch of a yearlong information campaign

In short, this comparatively brief 17-hour block in MTV's broadcast history was everything the overblown movie that preceded it wasn't: provocative, thoughtfully constructed and well-executed. The question remains: How long can MTV resist the opportunity for hype?

If we're going to educate the commonweal, and young kids in particular, about tolerance and acceptance of difference, then we can't treat racism as if it's something outside us, an intangible enemy we're all vaguely working against. Nor can we afford to pump up the flash and filigree to the point where the message is lost (witness the Arizona Department of Health's condemnatory and moralizing "Abstinence Before Marriage" television spots, whose sledgehammer subtext seems to be that young women who explore their own sexuality outside the boundaries of church-instituted matrimony are unrepentant sluts, unfit for romantic commitment). For once, MTV treated even its youngest viewers not like programmable boob-tube monkeys who can't even sit through a goddamn music video anymore without a ticker-tape chat-room commentary at the bottom of the screen to hold their attention, but like sentient humans who might actually respond empathetically to a reasonable statement of naked, angry fact. That, my friends -- not the 17-hour shutdown, not the media blitz, not MTV's response to the gay/lesbian activist uproar -- is the real unprecedented phenomenon here.

Four months after double life sentences were handed down to each of Matthew Shepard's killers, I found myself in Laramie, at the University of Wyoming, to deliver a paper at a conference. During a break from the action, I wandered the downtown area, which isn't very big at all. And in the windows of several businesses I saw a tiny "safe zone" sticker, the rainbow flag of the gay/lesbian community. It supported me then to believe that those stickers were placed there out of compassion, and not guilt. It supports me now to believe that the nation's single most ubiquitous media outlet for popular music might sustain a campaign like this for a full year -- for beyond, if we're lucky. I'm optimistic, if cautiously so.

MTV's promotional support of the controversial Eminem is one factor behind the launch of the network's new information campaign on tolerance.
MTV's promotional support of the controversial Eminem is one factor behind the launch of the network's new information campaign on tolerance.

Let's stay tuned.

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