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Challenging "Sing for Change" Critics

Posted: 10/14/08 04:33 PM ET

I rarely watch TV news or political talk shows, but last week when I heard that my 7 and 10 year old daughters were singing on Fox News, The View, and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, I tuned in. I also checked out the Fox News blog, the Drudge Report and the O'Reilly Factor -- my first time ever on those websites -- and there they were again. Just yesterday, my kids showed up in Newsweek, on the "Perspectives" page. My children are not professional performers; no one in my family works in the media; my husband and I are basically blog ignorant. We don't subscribe to Newsweek.

So what's up with my kids? Here's the story:

Last week, Fox News aired and posted on its blog a YouTube video clip entitled "Sing for Change." This three-minute clip consists of 22 children, ages 5-12, led by an adult, singing a pro-Obama song with parents watching approvingly in the background. Fox framed the clip with the subtitle "Cute or Creepy?" and asked viewers to respond on the Fox blog. Within a few days, Bill O'Reilly aired the clip on his cable show, as presented by "internet cop", Amanda Carpenter. Carpenter introduces the clip as "an event [organized by] a music teacher in Venice, California named Kathy Sawanda". She describes Kathy as an "Obama fundraiser"...who "recruited the kids...in her class." After showing a few seconds of the clip, Carpenter states that the "Sing for Change" video was

"spun as a grass roots event, but if you look at the way it was produced ... the web site listed all the people involved. They had 22 people on their camera crew doing this. This was a professional job."

The implication of both this commentary and the subtitle "Cute or Creepy" is that political "professionals" manipulated these children into making this video; that the children were exploited; that the savvy viewer wouldn't find this children's choir "cute", as intended by the "professionals", but rather "creepy", because these children were brainwashed into supporting an insupportable political candidate .

I am the mom of two of those kids. I was there. I want to correct O'Reilly's and Carpenter's journalistic errors, and to comment on their presentation.

The choir leader's name is not Sawanda, with the "hyphenated-American" ethnicity that implies. It's Sawada, with "hyphenated American" ethnicity that implies. Sawada was born and raised in Alabama and graduated from Yale Divinity School and the Manhattan School of Music. She is a musician and music teacher.

Sawada is not "an Obama fundraiser," unless we label every individual American who has made a $75 donation to the Obama campaign an "Obama fundraiser".

The children were not "recruited in...class."
A personal email was sent to a wide circle of friends, inviting us to participate. That email became viral in typical grassroots viral email fashion. People responded (or didn't) individually, as they wished. No mention was ever made of music class or school.

The event was not "spun as a grassroots event" because it was, in fact, grassroots, from start to finish. No one involved in this event was professionally connected to the Obama campaign or the democratic party leadership. The irony is that some participants did want to give the clip to the Obama campaign, but no one had a direct connection. Even if we had wanted a "spin", we knew no "spinners". So we agreed to just load it onto YouTube, like tens of thousands of other Americans who have something to share.

There were not "22 people on their camera crew doing this." This was not "a professional job." Yes, there are 22 people listed and thanked at the end of the video. 5 of them operated four cameras and the sound. Two of them directed and edited the shoot. These people were friends of friends who heard about the plan from the viral email, and volunteered to help. They happened to be television camera and sound operators by profession (we do live in L.A., after all). They wanted to be involved and volunteered their expertise. They were able to rent the cameras at a discount. The other fifteen people thanked at the end of the video are the various volunteers who played the instruments, offered their homes, made the banners, printed the T-shirts, brought chips and dip from Trader Joe's, and watched the younger siblings.

Those are the facts, presented by an eye-witness. It seems that "internet cop" Carpenter presented false evidence, and O'Reilly promoted a false conviction in the court of public opinion. I hope this will help O'Reilly and Carpenter to double-check their research and set the record straight.

As for my opinion about the Fox News and O'Reilly Factor broadcasts- I disagree with their presentations (spin?) for the following reasons:

The children are not "creepy," if "creepy" means brainwashed.

To be honest, when I allowed my children to participate in this event, I was concerned. Were they just parroting the opinions of the adults around them? Jumping on the bandwagon without thought or understanding?

Speaking for my family, the answer is no. I was not an Obama supporter in the primary election, and my children knew this. They were concerned that they would "hurt my feelings" by singing for Obama. I told them that I had no problem with them expressing a political opinion different from mine. I also told them that I hoped they knew why they supported Obama -- and asked for their reasons. I wanted my children to sing, to have fun, and to enthusiastically engage in the political process. And I used this opportunity to encourage them to be thoughtful as they did so.

We parents had a lesson to learn here, too. While the children were practicing, we were asked to sign a release form for the YouTube posting. I was concerned about this. I commented to parents around me that once this was on YouTube, it could be distorted by just about anyone. Were we prepared to have, for example, "neo-Nazis" spin the video in some sort of racist- paranoid-conspiracy-message? Some parents were concerned; others couldn't imagine this happening. Everyone signed the release. Little did we know that Fox News itself would release these hounds of hatred. Once the "Cute or Creepy" spin starting circulating on internet and TV, hundreds of people would write to Sawada, calling her a "f...ing bitch", a "Maoist", a "North Korean", and, yes -- ironically -- leader of "Hitler Youth".

Although I had serious misgivings, I decided to let my children sing because I believe we all benefit when our children are comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions, even- or especially- when others challenge them. If they can do that, they can participate in civic debate--and don't we all want our children to be active, engaged citizens?

Is it a fact that children tend to adopt their parents political views? Yes. Can that be a problem? Yes, if those views are prejudiced, intolerant or unconsidered. Is it appropriate to teach our children our values? I believe it is -- from the Fundamentalist Christian right to the bleeding heart liberal left. In any case, appropriate or not, it is largely inevitable. Therefore we also have the responsibility to teach our children the importance of meaningful dialogue with reasoned proponents of other values and political views.

The problem with the Fox News and O'Reilly Factor presentation is twofold. First, its reasoning -- in this case, factual accuracy -- is flawed. Where is the "fact" in the O'Reilly Factor? Secondly, it doesn't promote meaningful dialogue. The "Cute or Creepy" epithet is sensational, reductionist, and undermines thoughtful dialogue. Are cute (naïve) or creepy (brainwashed) the only two options? What about instead asking whether our kids are engaged or disengaged as citizens? About how we can responsibly engage them? Civic engagement develops over time; our children must be invited and encouraged in, allowed to participate and experiment; taught to question their own views and abandon or defend them when necessary. This is a discussion worth having. "Cute or Creepy" is not. From a child's perspective, "Cute or Creepy" is just name-calling. From a parent's perspective it's bullying by the biggest, meanest kid on the media playground.

My kids were called to action by an idealist who wanted to put something out there, to actively contribute to a cause she believes in. Her message was a simple, positive message of hope and change, and music was the medium. She extended an open invitation to everyone she knows to join her. People responded enthusiastically, offering their services, and yes -- giving their children the opportunity to participate. Were some parents naïve to think that allowing their children to express a political opinion was without risk? If so, Fox and O'Reilly have set them straight. Was the risk worth taking? Yes, if we parents take this opportunity to teach our children the importance of thinking through our political choices and defending them against ill-informed attack.