Next: 'The Revolt of the Revolted'; Denouncing the Sleazy World of Tabloid-TV Trash Is Politically Easy, Cheap - and Long Overdue

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, November 6, 1995 | Go to article overview

Next: 'The Revolt of the Revolted'; Denouncing the Sleazy World of Tabloid-TV Trash Is Politically Easy, Cheap - and Long Overdue


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Denouncing the sleazy world of tabloid-TV trash is politically easy, cheap--and long overdue

SALLY JESSY RAPHAEL tried to book her attacker, William Bennett, for her show last week. A full hour, one-on-one, to explain his contempt for the "cultural pollution" that he says Sally and Geraldo and Montel and the rest (except Oprah) are inflicting on America. Bennett declined. He believes in what he calls "constructive hypocrisy"--the idea that civilization depends on keeping most perversions under wraps. But appearing on a show he denounces would have been a more personal hypocrisy, he told Sally. Of course, if he had appeared, Bennett would have no doubt been booed by her loyal audience.

And cheered outside the studio, where weary parents--fighting for the souls of their children against a culture of depravity--will take any help they can get. The "revolt of the revolted " as Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman called it last week, is finally underway, with left, right and center opening fire at once at the likes of "Housewives vs. Strippers" (Richard Bey) and "You're Cheating and I Have Proof" (Ricki Lake). Denouncing TV freak shows is politically easy, cheap ... and long overdue. Even Geraldo Rivera, while critical of "malignant generalizations" that lump all daytime talk shows together, admits that "they're on to something. The frayed edges should be cut off. These shows have great relevance to tens of millions, but sometimes the moral message is obscured by a burlesque theater." Tabloid's new elder statesman asks: "What comes next? Fornication on the air?"

Somewhere a TV booker is thinking: hmmm ... Finding guests for that show wouldn't be a problem; thousands a day write in trying to get on the air for one perversion or another. After all, it has always been part of the American dream to run off and join the circus. These shows just let you do it without quitting your day job.

But something is changing in voyeurland. Maybe it began last March when one guest on Jenny Jones murdered another after the show. Rivera says it started earlier: "For the last year and a half, my topic selection has been positively G-rated." He winced at the lesbian kissing he saw on Jerry Springer recently, fearing the ammo it gives the critics. Geraldo's ideal uplifting, entertaining daytime topic? "Makeovers for Battered Women," with the hotline numbers for battery victims flashed repeatedly.

That sounds like something Donna Shalala could live with. While conservatives like Bennett, Lieberman and Sam Nunn wield the stick of righteous press conferences, liberals like the secretary of health and human services proffer the carrot of cooperation and conscience. Shalala gave a thoughtful speech at a "Talk Summit" last in New York between daytime talkshow producers (few of the big hosts themselves showed up) and social-service professionals trying to get the shows to be more socially helpful. The "summit" may sound like some dopey cold-war knockoff; on the other hand, shows like "Get Bigger Breasts -- Or Else" (Rolonda) are currently a more serious threat to American youth than, say, the Red Army. "You know how to catch people's eye," Shalala told the talkers, explaining that Washington's lame idea of communicating with young people is through pamphlets. "The question is, what are you going to tell them? …

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