William Bennett, the former secretary of education who last spring led a campaign to clean up obscene and violent rap lyrics, yesterday set his sights on a new target: daytime TV talk shows, including "Sally Jessy Raphael," "Montel Williams" and "Jenny Jones."
Flanked by Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Sam Nunn of Georgia, Mr. Bennett charged that TV talk shows fill the airwaves with programming that celebrates sexual immorality and perversion, cruelty and violence.
Denouncing the programs as promoters of "cultural rot," Mr. Bennett said, "It's hard to remember, but there was a time in which personal failure, marital failure, subliminal desires and gross tastes were reason for embarrassment and guilt," he said. "Today they are a ticket to appear on the 'Sally Jessy Raphael Show.' "
Television station executives, when asked about Mr. Bennett's comments, said that rather than being detrimental to society, the shows often reflect it.
"Even though some of these shows may have bordered on what appears to be exploitive, many have raised the consciousness of Americans about things that heretofore were not discussed around the dinner table, such as racism, sexism, pedophilia," said Mike Easterling, manager of programming at WJZ-TV, which airs "Sally Jessy Raphael" and "Geraldo."
He added, "I think Mr. Bennett probably is better served by trying to work with the media to right some of the things that cause dysfunctional families and unhappy people that we see on the talk shows."
Earlier this year, Mr. Bennett, Sen. Lieberman and C. Delores Tucker, who heads the National Political Congress of Black Women, led a campaign against Time Warner as owner of a subsidiary that produced gangsta rap music. That effort resulted in several executives being fired, and last month Time Warner agreed to sell its stake in the subsidiary.
Ms. Tucker, who was not at yesterday's conference, released a statement saying she was proud to join the fight against talk shows that are "poisoning the cultural environment."
Mr. Bennett described the new campaign as an appeal to "men and women of good will" to "stop the giant popular culture sleaze machine" by demanding that stations and producers reconsider what programs are shown on television.
Among the shows targeted are: "Jerry Springer," "Maury Povich," "Geraldo," "Charles Perez," "Rolonda," "Ricki Lake" and "Richard Bey."
The group is not challenging such shows as "Regis & Kathie Lee" and "Oprah," who next week will launch a year-long series of programs dealing with children's issues.
Sen. Lieberman said he often hears from parents who are angry about television programming. "These parents feel like they are locked in a struggle with powerful forces outside of their control to shape their children's values."
He expressed concern about the number of children watching the shows, even though many are aired during school hours. For example, he said, almost 650,000 children regularly watched the "Ricki Lake" show.
Sen. Nunn added, "These shows increasingly make the abnormal normal and set up the most perverse role models for our children and adults. The result is an increasingly debased culture that rejects rather than reflects the basic values that most Americans share."
Many shows employ a confessional or confrontational format in which guests are surprised by ex-lovers, former best friends or spouses who have betrayed them. Some recent examples include a "Jenny Jones" show featuring a woman who became pregnant making a pornographic movie; a "Jerry Springer" interview with a 16-year-old girl who said she'd buried her newborn baby alive; and a "Geraldo" program titled "Women who marry their rapists."
On at least one occasion, the aftermath of a daytime talk show has made news: Last spring a gay man on "Jenny Jones" was introduced to a heterosexual guest whom he said he desired sexually: Several days later, the heterosexual man killed the gay man.
Some hosts denied that their shows were harmful. "We are proud of our show," said Maury Povich, whose program airs locally on WMAR-TV. "I think the goals William Bennett has laid out for making a positive difference in the lives of our viewers are the goals we try to reach every day."
And some shows have made an effort to change, points out Emerson Coleman, director of broadcast operations at WBAL-TV, which airs "Regis & Kathie Lee," "Oprah Winfrey," "Jerry Springer" and "Sally Jessy Raphael."
" 'Oprah Winfrey,' who has changed the style of her show to one that deals with either more positive or more serious issues, is the most watched talk-show host in the Baltimore market, he noted. "The best of these shows should get credit: They take on tough topics give people a voice and try to reach out to parents, kids and families."
But Sen. Lieberman shrugged off suggestions that more than a few of the talk shows may be helpful to viewers. "The proliferation of perversion of daytime television is affecting our entire society by the example it sets," he said.