The Crimes of Mister Rogers: He Meow-Meow Lied to Us Meow

Whether he intended to or not, Mr. Rogers encouraged a deeply personal relationship to television that did more harm than good.

Fred Rogers and Benjamin Wagner on Nantucket.

There are certain people one must simply never criticize. Call them the untouchables.

Nelson Mandela is one. Gandhi. Tina Fey. That guy from Wilco.

Even in this illustrious pantheon, though, Fred McFeely Rogers is in a class by himself—quite possibly the most universally beloved and venerated human being of all time. Even Jesus had a few enemies, right? Nobody doesn’t love Mister Rogers.

And yet, it has to be said: the minister turned low-key children’s television pioneer, the gentle soul who made the Keds Champion sneaker cool (and never took a dime of endorsement money)—did us wrong. In a what was no doubt a genuine attempt to protect young children from the brain-numbing evils of commercial television, he inadvertently helped to deliver us into the diabolical clutches of the enemy. By painstakingly cementing an ardent emotional attachment to the medium in his impressionable viewers, he groomed us for a lifetime of exploitation.

Although Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood hasn’t aired in several years, and it’s been nearly a decade since the host hopped that last trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the legacy of Mr. Rogers lives on, and not merely in all those cardigan sweaters one can spot on the L train. The cult of Fred, which has already spawned a number of books (including The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor, by Amy Hollingsworth; and I’m Proud of You: Life Lessons from My Friend Mr. Rogers, by Tim Madigan), gives birth to another sacred text on March 20, with the PBS premiere of Mister Rogers & Me, a buttery pound of documentary fudge seemingly designed as the opening salvo in a Fred Rogers canonization campaign. (Mr. Rogers was not a Roman Catholic—he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, who was actually “directed by Church officials” to persue his divine calling through children’s television, according to a 1988 profile in the Chicago Tribune. But maybe an exception can be made.)

This unctuous hagiography, which a cynical viewer might see as an extended propaganda piece for public broadcasting at a time of funding challenges, came about because first-time filmmaker Benjamin Wagner, a producer for MTV, had the good fortune to summer on Nantucket, scarcely a stone’s throw from Fred Rogers’ “modest gray shake-shingled house,” as he puts it in a cozy voice-over.

Not that anyone is throwing any stones, mind you. While Mr. Wagner’s title pays homage to Michael Moore’s 1989 excoriation of GM ceo Roger Smith, it’s fairly evident from the film’s opening moments, in which the director is seen walking thoughtfully through Hell’s Kitchen in a pea coat, shades and earbuds, that his is a more reverential approach.

Ben met Fred in 2001. It was late summer. September 11 was still more than a week away. Mr. Wagner was celebrating his 30th birthday, and Mr. Rogers ambled over to say hi. (Maybe he was bored—it was just a month after he’d taped the final episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.) Mr. Wagner was then working for MTV, and feeling guilty about it. He was a guy with “a PBS mind,” as he puts it, “in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world, trying to figure out just what I can do to make it a better place.”

Mr. Wagner’s narration must be reproduced at length to fully demonstrate the challenges posed by aiming for heartfelt sincerity when one’s deepest emotional utterances make Henrietta “Meow-meow good-feeling meow!” Pussycat sound like a hard-bitten nihilist.

“He asked about my plans, my hopes and my dreams,” Mr. Wagner recalls of that fateful afternoon. “I sang for him, and when I finished, he clapped and we drank another glass of lemonade, and I smiled and smiled and smiled, because Mr. Rogers really was my neighbor.”

Having thereby established his ironclad credentials as one of the true apostles of Fred, Mr. Wagner yields the floor to some other of Mr. Rogers “neighbors,” all of whom seem to feel the broadcaster was a pretty special guy. They include the aforementioned Rogers groupies Mr. Madigan and Ms. Hollingsworth, Tim Russert (another untouchable); NPR veteran Susan Stamberg; Marc Brown, the creator of Arthur the Aardvark; broadcaster Linda Ellerbee, and This American Lifer Davy Rothbart, whose 2001 radio segment on Mister Rogers managed to be considerably sweeter than Mr. Wagner’s film without being nearly as sappy. There’s also Bo Lozoff, a spiritual guru and cofounder of the Human Kindness Foundation, who taught meditation and yoga to prison inmates for decades before sexual harassment accusations surfaced in 2008. The film doesn’t touch on those, but they must not have been all that bad, because Mr. Wagner went ahead and had Mr. Lozoff officiate at his wedding.

All of neighbors testify to Fred Rogers’ goodness, and there’s little doubt that he was a wonderful person. The film recalls one signature moment in Rogers lore, in 1969, when he single-handedly persuaded a Senate subcommittee to retain a $20 million grant for the nascent Corporation for Public Broadcasting that President Richard Nixon was looking to cut in half. In his testimony, Mr. Rogers cast himself as a slow-talking, feelings-endorsing bulwark against the “bombardment” of cartoons the commercial networks were aiming at the nation’s children.

Of course, that blitzkrieg has intensified.

The Crimes of Mister Rogers: He Meow-Meow Lied to Us Meow