Things got messy this week with the girlfriends on The View. What was supposed to be a carefully choreographed series of lies, told to save face, spare feelings and protect careers, devolved into a nasty catfight, leaving a veteran newswoman, Barbara Walters, in the position not only of having admitted lying, but of accusing her now-former co-host, Star Jones Reynolds, of lacking dignity for failing to lie about why she was leaving the show.
Jones Reynolds, for her part, had already been slammed for (allegedly) lying about how she lost more than 100 pounds. And the woman who accused her of that, The View's new co-host, Rosie O'Donnell, lied for years about having a deep crush on Tom Cruise ... before she came out of the closet.
Everybody in TV lies, of course. To save face, to save feelings, to save careers. But rarely do the lies unravel so publicly and -- frankly -- so deliciously.
And rarely is a journalist such as Walters, whose main asset is her credibility, after all, forced to admit to a tango with the truth. "I have always told the truth on this program," Walters told the New York Daily News on Tuesday, "except in the case of Star."
Her big lie: Last May, when O'Donnell was hired to replace Meredith Vieira, Walters tried to dampen speculation that Jones Reynolds' contract would not be renewed for a 10th season. "If Star wants to continue to be there," Walters told The New York Times, "she is welcome."
As it turns out, not so much.
"This was not one of Barbara Walters' finest moments," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Walters had known for months that ABC would not renew Jones Reynolds' contract. As Walters told reporters this week, Jones Reynolds' "negatives" were going up and the public was starting to doubt her veracity. (A lot of that going around, Barbara.) "They didn't believe some of the things she said," Walters told one reporter.
Jones Reynolds was supposed to let Walters lie for her, but her feelings of betrayal must have gotten the best of her. So she did two things: Instead of waiting until Thursday, the day she was supposed to announce that she was leaving, she jumped the gun Tuesday and announced during the show to her surprised co-hosts Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Walters that she was not coming back in the fall. "Oh," said a completely disingenuous Walters, "how long are you going to be with us?"
And then Jones Reynolds compounded the insult by telling People magazine, "I feel like I've been fired." Which, of course, is true, but that is not what the script had called for.
On Wednesday's The View, a solemn Walters spun the debacle for viewers, and unwittingly -- perhaps historically -- outlined the ritualized deceptions regularly used when a high-profile employee is fired: "This is, truthfully, a very difficult day for us," she said. "If you were watching the program yesterday, you would have heard Star announce that she's leaving. ... We didn't expect her to make this statement yesterday. She gave us no warning, and we were taken by surprise. But the truth is that Star has known for months that ABC did not want to renew her contract. ... But we were never going to say this. We wanted to protect Star. And so we told her that she could say whatever she wanted about why she was leaving and that we would back her up. ... But Star made another choice."
Yes, the almost unheard-of other choice: telling the truth. By doing so, Jones Reynolds pulled back the curtain on that messy place where girlfriends and professional obligations collide.
"For Barbara to say she felt betrayed is the height of hypocrisy," Jones Reynolds caterwauled in Thursday's New York Daily News.
Jones Reynolds, a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney who came to prominence as a commentator for the O.J. Simpson murder trial, had become a parody of self-promotion. She flogged her wedding suppliers, who gave her freebies in exchange for on-air plugs, until ABC asked her to cease and desist. When she wasn't promoting herself, she was on a book tour, telling women how to reach their goals but playing coy about how she reached hers.
All of this infuriated O'Donnell, who went after Jones Reynolds on her Web site in free verse, no less: "Star Jones had weight loss surgery / She had part of her stomach bypassed / that is how she lost 1 / 2 herself / she refuses to say this / which is her right / but we do not have to pretend we do not know."
Nor do we have to pretend we don't know that Rosie O'Donnell never really loved Tom Cruise, that Star Jones Reynolds was fired and, perhaps saddest of all, that Barbara Walters is a liar.
Robin Abcarian writes for the Los Angeles Times.