Not long ago, Holly and I watched “Being Elmo,” the documentary about Kevin Clash and his work as a puppeteer, for a movie club we were running on our podcast. We made no secret of how genuinely moved we both were by Kevin’s story. That makes it, in a number of ways, awkward and upsetting to talk about what’s going on now. We’ve talked about how much we love the Muppets and how much we love Clash’s work, so it seems like any commentary we could appear to be biased.
But this post isn’t about whether Clash is guilty, or whether the allegations themselves are true. Instead, this is about how the media is currently approaching the story. Most of the articles I’ve read – and because it’s personally upsetting to me, I’ve read a lot – are ultimately sourced back to gossip site TMZ and to the allegations made by two men, who were teenagers when the alleged abuse happened. Few articles lend any new insights, instead rehashing the same quotes from statements by Sesame Workshop and Clash, and from the second accuser. Clash has not, as of this moment, been charged with a crime, and his accusers have not, from what I have been able to determine, attempted to press criminal charges.
So far, none of the journalists covering the story seem inclined to answer any of the following questions:
- According to the accusers’ descriptions, Clash committed a criminal sexual act in the third degree, a class E felony in New York. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), in New York, there the $5 million lawsuit against Clash has been filed, the statute of limitations for what the accusers allege happened is five years from the last criminal incident or from the date the victim turns 18. According to this chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures, the statute of limitations applies to civil suits as well. The first accuser was anonymous initially, but sources (starting with Smoking Gun) have identified him as Sheldon Stevens, now 23. The second accuser is Cecil Singleton, now 24. It would appear that the statute of limitations has passed, for both accusers – legally, what does this mean in terms of their allegations, and in terms of the lawsuit Singleton has filed?
- How might Stevens’ recantation of his statement, and his recantation of that recantation (which was also originally sourced to TMZ) affect these proceedings?
- Why have these two men, who allege that they are victims of a crime, gone to the media and to civil action with their allegation, rather than to law enforcement?
- Why does Singleton claim that he did not report the incident because he thought he was “a unique circumstance” but also claim to have knowledge that Clash was using “gay telephone chat line rooms to meet and have sex with underage boys”?
- Why are so many media outlets so comfortable using a gossip site as a source, without being able to confirm information through their own independent journalistic work?
- Similarly, why are TMZ and a press conference held by an accuser being given the same weight in reporting as criminal charges would be?
My degree is in English, not journalism. The writing and editing work in my career has been related to features, not news. So it’s entirely possible that there are ethical standards regarding child abuse allegations in the world of journalism that I do not know about. And, to be absolutely clear here, if these allegations are true, it’s horrible, for a number of reasons.
I also understand the need for sensitivity and protection for the victims of crime, especially of sex-related crimes. But this is not at all the same as protecting rape victims from questioning about what they were wearing or why they were out so late at night. Nor is it the same as using a rape victim’s past sexual history as evidence that a rape didn’t occur. I’m curious as to why the legitimate questions above are not being explored, and how much of that has to do with Clash’s fame and his involvement with a brand as big as “Sesame Street.”