When allegations emerged that puppeteer Kevin Clash, best known as the voice behind Sesame Street’s Elmo, was accused of engaging in sexual activity with underage male teenagers, writers had a field day.
Teasing to a story on Atlantic Wire that a third accuser had come forth, The Daily Beast started off with: “Elmo is having a bad month.”
By the end of the actual story on Atlantic Wire, however, it was clear Elmo wasn’t having a bad month, a retail expert said Clash’s legal problems had not put a dent in the Elmo brand or in sales of the puppet or related merchandise.
Elmo is Elmo. Kevin Clash is Kevin Clash. Most children understand that or don’t draw a connection between the two.
Some adults – or adult journalists, at least – aren’t letting the facts get in the way of a good story.
True, Clash and his relationship to the warm and fuzzy red puppet, have been more highly publicized than some of the other puppeteers for the iconic children’s program. Clash wrote a popular autobiography, My Life as a Furry Red Monster (2006), and was featured in the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011).
Still, all sides of the alleged relationships have not come out. Three men have come forward and said they met Clash on a gay chat line when they were teenagers and engaged in sexual relations with him. It is not clear, though, if Clash knew the men were underage before they met, if he found out and pursued relationships with them anyway, or even if the allegations are true.
The first accuser recanted his accusation and said he had reached the age of majority when he and Clash became involved. Later, he said he was pressured into changing his story.
Most recently, a 29-year-old man came forward and alleged he became sexually involved at age 15 with Clash, that Clash used an alias when they met online but that he realized who Clash was after they met at the older man’s apartment. He said he realized who Clash was when he saw “Elmo dolls, an Emmy award, and photographs of Elmo with movie stars.” His lawyer said that his client started writing a book about the experience in 2009.
If true, that is a tawdry and sad episode in Clash’s life. But no matter how closely associated he is with Elmo, Clash is not a puppet. He is a man who may have made some seriously bad choices; he may have been the target of some people who sought an easy payday by threatening to tarnish a not-hiding-but-not-really-openly gay man’s professional reputation.
Earlier this year, Clash acknowledged he was gay as stories surfaced questioning his sexual orientation, but said he had not revealed it earlier because he didn’t want to discuss his private life.
Elmo may have made Clash famous, but linking the puppet to alleged inappropriate sexual behavior, especially when there seems to be no evidence that Clash abused the character’s persona to pursue a relationship, is unseemly.
If Clash had been a truck driver or letter carrier, his occupation probably would not be linked to his purported deeds. Yes, Elmo made Clash a public figure, but he did not cause Clash’s fall from grace.
The reporting should make the distinction clear and insipid puns should be held in abeyance until all the facts are in.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”