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In town of talk, must we also throw chairs?

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 1999



CHICAGO

What is it about this city? People here just love to talk. It was here in 1858 that Sen. Stephen Douglas agreed to debate a lanky lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. And in 1960, Richard Nixon took on John Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate.

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In fact, they say Chicago got its "Windy City" nickname as much from the long-winded residents as from the swirling gusts. So perhaps it's no surprise that this Midwestern metropolis is home to three of America's Titans of Talk - Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer, and Jenny Jones.

But if a crusading priest from the gritty South Side has his way, Chicago may end up changing the volume and volatility of America's talk-show culture. He's persuaded the City Council to summon Mr. Springer to discuss the nature of the fights on his program - "The Jerry Springer Show."

The Rev. Michael Pfleger has tilted at cigarette billboards, liquor stores, and gangs. Now, after more than a year of taking on the most outrageous and most popular talk show, he believes this strategy could topple it.

With the summons coming from the council's powerful Finance Committee chairman, Alderman Edward Burke - and under threat of subpoena - Springer has agreed to appear. The showdown is set for high noon on June 4.

"We're going to box him in with his own words," says Fr. Pfleger.

He and Mr. Burke want to pin Springer down on one point: Are the regular fights between guests on his show really spontaneous - or are they scripted?

Either way, they've got a plan.

If Springer maintains that the violence is spontaneous - as he has before - they want to have police arrest combative guests on the spot.

If Springer says the violence is scripted, they say it will expose the fictitious nature of the show - and be a turn-off to viewers. They'd also want him to get a city entertainment license.

But observers point out that Springer agreed pretty quickly to come before the Council. Some worry it will only give him more publicity. (They also note Pfleger and the City Council will get a heap of publicity, too.)

Springer himself is keeping mum. A spokeswoman would say only, "I don't think we would consider this in any way a publicity stunt. Jerry was a member of a City Council himself back in Cincinnati prior to becoming [that city's] mayor. He respects the function of the City Council, and he's accepted their invitation to speak."

As for the two-pronged plan, people disagree on whether it will work.

First: arresting the guests. Making a public-safety issue of talk-show violence has more resonance after the recent $25 million verdict against "The Jenny Jones Show," which was found liable when one guest killed another after they appeared on the program.

But it's not clear if police can arrest brawling guests. "You can't make an arrest without a complaint," says Alderman William Beavers, a former policeman.

Yet police make arrests without complaints all the time - in drug deals, for instance, says University of Chicago law professor Tracey Meares. Just because they don't often arrest people in a street fight doesn't mean they can't. "We expect that police should exercise their discretion when there's a serious social cost to the behavior," she says. In this case, she says, there is a cost - validating violence on national TV.

Beavers counters that such a standard could be a dangerous precedent. "I could see a lot of stuff coming off TV if that was the case," he says.

Second: exposing the allegedly scripted nature of the show. Some say Springer's show is like professional wrestling: Viewers know it's fake but like it anyway.

But Pfleger points out that Springer's recent movie, "The Jerry Springer Movie," bombed at the box office - and says it's because it was fictitious. If the TV show was exposed as fiction, he says, people wouldn't be as interested.

Then there's the entertainment license. City officials say they've never regulated a TV show before, so they don't know specifics.

The cost probably wouldn't be prohibitive - maybe $1,000 per year. But some other restrictions could pinch more. There's a potential parking issue, for instance. Licensed businesses have to have parking for 10 percent of their patrons. That could be a problem for Springer's downtown studios, which are in a densely populated area.

Hey, another of this town's notorious icons - gangster Al Capone - was brought low by income-tax laws. Maybe Springer's critics will fell his show with parking restrictions.

Maybe.