Wires, lights, and ridicule in a box

By Dee Davis

In 1906 the Bronx Zoo put a tribesman from the Congo on display in a cage with an orangutan and a parrot. Though the African-American clergy in the city vehemently protested, Zoo officials and even the mayor of New York refused to stop the spectacle. Crowds filed by to see this man not as who he was, but as who he was advertised to be, a pygmy cannibal from the African jungle.


About the Author

Dee Davis is the president of the Center for Rural Strategies. This essay appeared in 2003.

In 2003 the CBS television network will air a program called “The Real Beverly Hillbillies.” In this reality series CBS will take a poor, rural family and put them on display in a Beverly Hills mansion. They have conducted searches for this family in the Deep South, the agricultural Midwest, and the Appalachian mountains. The network's requirements are that the family should have limited education and have experienced only minimal travel. The joke is that they will not know how to live with riches, servants, modern appliances, and prepared food. Audiences are to watch and guffaw at the poor family's clumsiness and their unworldly ways. 

In 2003 we do not need a careful consideration of the arguments put forth by officials in 1906 to know that placing a human being in a cage in a zoo was wrong. Certainly in this century we understand the dehumanizing harmfulness of stereotypes and thoughtless discrimination. Further we understand that malicious stereotyping doesn't just damage the targets of derision, it also injures those who hold fast to false and harmful depictions.

In 2003 the executives of CBS and of its parent company, Viacom, will assuredly have well honed arguments as to why humiliating a poor, rural family fits within good business practice. They can argue free commerce or First Amendment protection. They can argue that all the networks do it, or they can even say that they are attempting to uplift a family who has been left behind. But CBS cannot make this overt form of ridicule right. And the local CBS stations can not make the case to the Federal Communications Commission that this program fits within their public service obligations to the communities they are licensed to serve.

There are 56 million rural Americans. Those of us who live in rural America are not fair game for CBS executives to contort and make sport of to line their pockets. Viacom shareholders take note.

CBS was once called the Tiffany Network. It was considered the gold standard in providing information and entertainment to America's families. Programs on CBS like Edward R. Murrow's “Harvest of Shame” showed the challenges real, poor, rural families faced in the 1960's, and that broadcast led to change that substantively bettered living conditions for hard-hit migrant farm families.

Here is what Ed Murrow said about television:

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, and, yes, it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is nothing but wires and lights in a box."

This is a lesson in business ethics and humanity lost on the current crop of CBS executives.