Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Screw Jenny Jones

By Cap'n O

MAY 24, 1999:  Now that TV freak show host Jenny Jones has been ordered to pay $25 million to the family of a gay man who was shot to death after going on the show to reveal a crush on another man, the pundits are screaming that the verdict is a blow to free speech.

It's doubtful that the verdict will deprive of us of our free speech rights. University speech codes and Democratic politicians are already doing that. But if the verdict does hurt Jones' show, then good. She deserves it.

All of the daytime TV shows are different, but they have a few things in common. They appeal to the sentimental, the underoccupied and the unemployed. They use real people's problems to provide cheap entertainment. This is hardly a new concept--advice columnists and lurid crime coverage have been staples of our culture for years--but TV talk shows and their cousins, the crime re-enactment dramas, have learned how to milk the market by putting in the least effort and expense to reap the most profit.

What neither the pontificating pundits nor the electronic apologists seem to recognize or want to admit is that daytime television is a varied sub-market. Within the category, there are different programs fulfilling different emotional audience requirements.

Talk shows come and go, and those that fail to find a niche with the daytime audience disappear quickly. The shows need more than freakish guests; they operate on the personality of the host.

For the purely and unapologetically salacious, Jerry Springer gathers half-dressed, loudmouthed exhibitionists reveling in their own perverse accomplishments. His guests aren't trying to convince anybody of anything. They just want to be on TV. Ricki Lake, formerly fat phenomenon and star of such classics as Hairspray, celebrated her own weight loss and departure from professional embarrassment (as an actress she was best known for her obesity) by encouraging others to embarrass themselves onscreen. Perhaps because of her own background, Ricki really appears to sympathize with the misfits she features.

Then there is Montel Williams, military in his bearing and unabashedly judgmental. His shtick is self-discipline and personal responsibility. Although often surreal in the context he places himself in, he pulls it off most of the time. Only Montel could get away with having his own brother as a guest on a program about men who act like irresponsible, self-centered jerks.

Jones has her own trademark style: deceit and hypocrisy. Out of all of them, her show relies most heavily on lies, ambushes and surprises. The industry does itself a disservice in claiming common cause with this mendacious loser.

Jones and her defenders point out that broadcasters have been fooling people since "Candid Camera" and "This Is Your Life." But there's a difference. "Candid Camera" never intruded upon people's real life longings. "This Is Your Life" genuinely attempted to evoke pleasant memories.

Lake is a former geek sympathizing with other geeks and occasionally taking them to task for their follies. In contrast, Jones maintains a supercilious and mocking tone throughout her freak show. Unlike Springer's guests, many of her subjects are true innocents.

Little kids know the difference between staring rudely at a man with a hideous birthmark and looking at some guy with a blue mohawk. The mohawk is a choice. Guests on Jones' program aren't given that choice. They have no opportunity for informed consent. They are brought on stage under false pretenses in order to experience pain and embarrassment.

Jones and her producers may or may not have known of Jonathan Schmitz's history of emotional problems. What they did know, or they wouldn't have bothered to put him on stage, was that he was a redneck with a fragile ego who would be upset to find out that his secret admirer was a man. They wanted him upset. That's what the show is all about.

Jones is crying over Scott Amedure's death now. But she certainly hasn't adjusted her modus operandi--that might cost her in the ratings. Even a death and a lawsuit haven't made her see her guests as human individuals.

There are limits to the First Amendment. There also ought to be limits to the amount of money someone like Jenny Jones can make off the deliberate mistreatment and belittlement of others. This verdict is a start.

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