NEW YORK -- They've torched Huck Finn. They've decided to censor the Internet. They've forced Congress to adapt their moronic "V-chip" rating scheme. Now the Christian fundamentalists who run America have turned on tabloid TV talk shows.
At first glance, daytime "trash television" looks like a fat target for censorship. Sally Jessy Raphael's "Teen Sex -- Better in the House Than in the Back of the Car," Ricki Lake's "Fighting Fathers and Stepfathers," Jerry Springer's "Poor Black Teen Buries Her Baby Alive," and Montel Williams' "Teens Who Refuse to Practice Safe Sex" are exploitative themes in the finest tradition of the American kitsch aesthetic.
Obviously these shows are crap, pure and simple -- a waste of valuable airtime -- and should be done away with, the sooner the better. Not to worry, Pat Buchanan and his crew are on the case.
Even liberal pundits like columnist Bob Herbert compare talk-show hosts and their producers to "pornographers and pimps."
CBS-TV "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace, no Christian Coalition member himself, recently called the growing popularity of tabloid journalism "disastrous" and told America Online members he blamed talk shows such as Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake and Sally Jessy Raphael for the "cheap exploitation of people who shouldn't have agreed to appear in the first place."
The problem is, Ricki Lake cares a boatload more about the country than Bill Clinton, Dan Rather or Ralph Reed.
After having watched hundreds of hours of these programs, I have found that they address more of the real, day-to-day problems of ordinary Americans than all other broadcast and print media combined. At no time is this more obvious than an election year in which candidates try to fire up crowds by calling for a 2 percent reduction in interest rates.
What real life is about
Teenage pregnancy, suicide, joblessness, shattered marriages, custody battles, incest, AIDS and the despair of people who don't know why they bother to get up in the morning is the stuff of daytime talk. It's also the stuff of most American lives. Viewers are responsive because they see people like them discussing issues that matter to them, no matter how lurid or downscale they may seem to consumers of The American Monthly and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
Naturally, most of the politicians and columnists who lambaste these shows obviously never watch them. I, however, do. So allow me to help out you Princeton grads. Here are some important points for you snobs who want the lowdown on daytime talk and the current state of America without having to invest the time you'd rather spend watching Merchant/Ivory films:
Talk-show guests are average Americans. George Will need not apply. American mass media has been usurped by the cult of the professional expert, but not here. Denizens of trailer parks and ghettos, the products of broken homes and a lousy education -- they're all here, shouting at each other, crying, spewing invective and malapropisms in all of their tacky glory. They are the great neglected majority -- and they vote.
Not all talk shows are alike. Many, like Sally Jessy Raphael, Gabrielle and Tempestt, suffer from dim-witted hosts and trite topics. Others, like Oprah and Maury Povich, have become as stale and out-of-touch as Congress. But the best talk shows offer entertainment and insight, such as Richard Bey's semi-game show format and Ricki Lake's fast-paced Gen X style, as well as incisive coverage of long-neglected topics.
Trash TV is educational. If you've ever wondered how racists think or why teenagers get pregnant, put down the New York Times op-ed page and tune in. I watched a mother who disapproved of her daughter's interracial marriage call herself 'pure-bred' because she was herself "a quarter blue-blood Russian, a quarter blue-blood Hungarian, a quarter blue-blood American Indian and a quarter blue-blood Irish." She considers herself "blue-blood, pure." This woman's surreal eugenics may not be pleasant to listen to, but her reasoning is not at all uncommon. You need to know about her and people like her. Why? Because there are a lot of them -- and they vote.
Trash TV is therapeutic. Unlike mainstream televised forums like "60 Minutes," many talk-show hosts actually attempt to resolve the problems they discuss then and there. Last year's murder of a gay man by a straight guy confronted with his "secret admirer" on the Jenny Jones show is often cited as an example of irresponsible television, but the only person to blame was the dirtbag who pulled the trigger. Anyway, that was a freak event. Richard Bey springs for shrinks, Montel Williams offers his production team to help design more effective anti-drug advertisements.
Montel Williams is God. If you watch no other talk show, watch Montel. Roughly half of this brilliant man's shows are based on "serious" topics, such as how to fight drugs, gang violence and improve secondary education. Although the former Marine hosts his share of shoutfests, he is always interested in solving the problems he discusses.
I attended a "Montel" taping on school violence a few months ago. Interestingly, the most worthless, out-of-touch comments spewed from the lips of the "experts" on the panel, Assistant Secretary of Education Madeleine Kunin and a syndicated columnist. Ms. Kunin's solution to school violence: "When someone hits you, talk to them instead of hitting them back" -- reminded me that our country is governed by idiots. By contrast, a "white trash" seventh-grader from Ohio who'd been beaten on the bus by 12-year-old thugs offered real insight: "The administrators just don't care. They're not paid to care."
If the Bible-thumpers and the white-wine-and-brie set have their way, the only discussion we'll have as a society will concern the Federal Reserve discount rate.
These would-be censors are lurid, rancid and dangerously stupid. Hell, they should be banned.
Ted Rall is a syndicated cartoonist and free-lance writer.
Pub Date: 4/09/96