In his Jan. 23 State of the Union address (click here for the video), President Bush paused briefly to pay tribute to a few everyday American heroes who'd been brought to the Capitol to sit beside his wife during the speech. It's a State of the Union tradition that began in 1982, when Ronald Reagan saluted Lenny Skutnik, a federal employee who, two weeks earlier, had plunged into the icy Potomac during a snowstorm to rescue the survivor of an airline crash. For the succeeding 25 years, every January some hapless White House functionary has been called upon to find a few new heroes to park next to the first lady in the House visitor's gallery. The supply was bound eventually to run a little thin, but whoever chose Julie Aigner-Clark, founder of the Baby Einstein Co., should have done a little more research.
There she was, sitting with Wesley Autrey, who leapt in front of a New York City subway train to rescue a complete stranger, and Army Sgt. Tommy Reiman, who repelled an enemy attack in Iraq with two legs full of shrapnel and bullet wounds in his arms and chest. Aigner-Clark's presence was, to say the least, incongruous. Here is how Bush summarized her achievement:
After her daughter was born, Julie Aigner-Clark searched for ways to share her love of music and art with her child. So she borrowed some equipment, and began filming children's videos in her basement. The Baby Einstein Company was born, and in just five years her business grew to more than $20 million in sales. In November 2001, Julie sold Baby Einstein to the Walt Disney Company, and with her help Baby Einstein has grown into a $200 million business. Julie represents the great enterprising spirit of America. And she is using her success to help others—producing child safety videos with John Walsh of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Julie says of her new project: "I believe it's the most important thing that I have ever done. I believe that children have the right to live in a world that is safe." And so tonight, we are pleased to welcome this talented business entrepreneur and generous social entrepreneur—Julie Aigner-Clark.
That's high praise for a businesswoman who (if I may be permitted a cynical moment) gave not a dime either to Bush or to the Republican National Committee during the last four election cycles. * What is Aigner-Clark's achievement? She got rich marketing videos to infants. No one told the president, I presume, that this profit-making scheme ignores advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under 2 years of age shouldn't watch TV. One recent study went so far as to suggest, plausibly, that too much TV at so early an age can be a risk factor for autism. (See the Oct. 2006 Slate piece, "TV Might Really Cause Autism" by Gregg Easterbrook.)
Baby Einstein is part of what Alissa Quart, in an August 2006 piece in the Atlantic ("Extreme Parenting"), called the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex, an industry that preys on the status anxiety of neurotic parents who, until Aigner-Clark and others told them otherwise, didn't sweat the meritocratic rat race until it was time to place their pint-sized strivers in preschool. That changed in the mid-1990s, when Don Campbell, extrapolating wildly from earlier research involving college students that, Quart writes, has never been duplicated, trademarked the slogan "Mozart effect" and used it to market classical-music CDs for infants. Aigner-Clark followed suit with her Baby Einstein videos in 1997.
"Essentially," Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan Lynn told the Chicago Tribune "Media Mom" (and occasional Slate contributor) Nell Minow in December 2005,
the baby video industry is a scam. There's no evidence that the videos are educational for babies, and a review of the research on babies and videos concludes that while older babies can imitate simple actions from a video they've seen several times, they learn much more rapidly from real life.
In May, a child-advocacy nonprofit filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission about Aigner-Clark's creation, alleging that claims made on the videos' behalf (example: With Baby DaVinci, "your child will learn to identify her different body parts, and also discover her five senses … in Spanish, English, and French!") are deceptive and false. Filed with the complaint were letters of support from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "The reality," wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics, "is that parents play the videos to give themselves some time to do other household chores, like cooking dinner or doing laundry. However, they shouldn't be led to believe that it helps their baby."
There's a sucker born every minute, but only a select few get to be president of the United States.
Clairification, Jan. 25: As usual, my problem isn't that I'm too cynical but rather that I'm not cynical enough. A reader alerts me that although Julie Aigner-Clark didn't contribute to Bush or the Republican National Committee during the last four election cycles, her husband and business partner, William E. Clark, gave $5,150 to Bush and the RNC during the 2004 cycle. (Return to the piece.)