Talk Television Goes on Trial
The case of one talk-show guest who murdered another spotlights issue of manipulation in this popular genre
NEW YORK — ON a cold March morning, a young Michigan man named Jonathan Schmitz left home and bought a 12-gauge shotgun. He then drove to the trailer of a homosexual acquaintance named Scott Amedure and, police say, shot and killed him. Then Mr. Schmitz drove to a gas station, dialed 911, and in tears announced: ''I just shot someone.''
Three days earlier, both men had been guests on the ''Jenny Jones'' talk show. Schmitz's lawyers claim he was led to believe he would meet a woman with a ''secret crush'' on him. When it turned out to be Mr. Amedure, Schmitz was mortified.
The case goes to court later this month and is expected to put talk television on trial right next to the defendant. While the producers of ''Jenny Jones'' deny any wrongdoing, Schmitz's lawyers will argue the show created the conditions that led to the killing.
''But for the intervention of the 'Jenny Jones' show, Jonathan Schmitz would not be in jail and Scott Amedure would be enjoying his normal activities as we speak, and I say that without reservation,'' says Fred Gibson, one of Schmitz's attorneys.
Talk shows have always thrived on controversy. But critics charge that the frank discussions that won talk-show pioneers like Phil Donahue a place on the dial have evolved beyond the informative, past the bizarre, and sunk to a new low. They say that vulnerable guests are routinely ambushed to create a highly charged, emotionally destructive circus that exploits their distress. Call it ''Get the Guest,'' with an audience hyped to bellow, jeer, and hiss like the Romans of old at the Coliseum.
''It's just pathetic; people are trapped like animals, frozen in front of the camera with little opportunity to defend themselves,'' says Nona Wilson, co-author of ''Tuning In Trouble, Talk TV's Destructive Impact on Our Mental Health'' (Jossey-Bass, 1995).
Talk-show advocates say it's absurd to blame a TV show for anyone's behavior.
''To suggest we have reached a point in our society where people don't take responsibility for their own actions - that this man could justify a murder because of a talk show - is stupid on its face,'' says talk-show host Jerry Springer.
The talk shows deny any unethical or improper behavior and make no apologies for focusing on what they call ''screwed up'' relationships. They insist they provide nothing more than good entertainment that allows ordinary people to speak for themselves about issues they care about. For proof they point to their high ratings and the thousands of people pleading to be guests.
''It's what interests people,'' says Burt Dubrow of Multimedia Entertainment, who is credited with creating ''Sally Jessy Raphael,'' ''The Jerry Springer Show,'' and the groundbreaking ''Donahue'' show. ''They've essentially turned into entertainment shows.''
In the past five years, talk TV has exploded. The shows are inexpensive, easy to produce, and enormously profitable compared with the average hour of TV drama. At least 20 now are nationally syndicated. As their numbers increased, so did their luridness. Producers caught on early: The more shocking the story, the more raw emotion on stage, the higher the ratings.
''Donahue was talking about controversial topics, but they were important in addition to being shocking,'' Ms. Wilson says. ''But now you have topics that get defined as important simply because they're shocking.''
From ''prom-night prostitutes,'' to ''women who marry their rapists,'' to ''twins who secretly sleep with each other's wives,'' to ''women who've killed their fathers,'' the talk-show appetite for the bizarre appears limitless.
''They thrive off of 'juice,' as they call it,'' says a former talk-show producer who asked that his name not be used. ''The juicier the better,'' he says.
Ten years ago, a show on acquaintances with ''secret crushes'' would probably have flown, the producer says, but not now. To give it ''juice,'' it needed a twist. The ''Jenny Jones'' show decided to make it same-sex secret crushes. Schmitz's lawyers say it was that twist that snagged their client.
''They lied to him three times,'' says Schmitz lawyer James Burdick, who says the producers' deceit led his client to believe he was meeting his ''dream woman.''
The ''Jenny Jones'' show refused to comment directly because of the impending trial. But they have consistently maintained that Schmitz was told his secret admirer could be a man or a woman.
''This is about one man murdering another man,'' says Barbara Brogliatti, spokeswoman for the ''Jenny Jones'' show.
Mr. Springer and talk-show advocates also say it is deplorable that the defense is trying to make the murderer out to be a victim. They argue the Schmitz case says more about America's so-called homophobia than trouble on talk television.
'THE only reason this is in the news is because some people believe that [Schmitz] had a reason to be humiliated by the attentions of a gay man,'' Springer says.
Many in the gay community laud talk shows for giving them a chance to speak for themselves in a relatively nonjudgmental forum, something they say is lacking in most mainstream media. But, they add, many talk shows also exploit them.
''It's not hard to come up with a list of things that divide and enrage people,'' says Josh Gamson, a professor of sociology at Yale University. ''Certainly anti-gay sentiment is a cheap and easy one, so I wouldn't let anyone off the hook on this one.''
Many people in the talk-show industry say they're only bringing out the ''real America.'' They defend their production tactics, noting that their producers are sophisticated people who screen all topics and extensively pre-interview all guests. They insist that producers don't need to manipulate people: Springer notes that his show gets more than 3,000 calls a day from people who want to be on the show.
But the former TV producer says talk shows routinely toss ethical considerations aside and coerce people to go on the show.
''They act like you're old friends, say they just want to hear your story, and they won't use the stuff on the air,'' he says. ''They'd call people back every day for a week, build up a rapport, then would come the stab.''
If, at the last minute, guests became reluctant to reveal the ''juiciest'' part of their lives, he says, producers resorted to high-pressure tactics.
JENNY SAYWARD and her two teenage children had such an experience. Ms. Sayward is the executive director of the Lavender Families Resource Network in Seattle, an educational and support service for gay and lesbian parents. After turning down hundreds of requests to appear on talk shows, she got a call from the ''Gordon Elliott Show'' that seemed to offer an opportunity to talk intelligently about the issues surrounding gay and lesbian families.
''I didn't want to be set up for a fist fight or a shouting match,'' Sayward says. ''I wanted to be part of a discussion where people could listen to each other.''
The producers then spent hours on the phone with her and her two teenage children. All three believed they were going to be part of a thoughtful discussion.
Instead, they found themselves in the middle of what they characterized as a fast-paced circus, portrayed as having a ''pathetic'' problem and presented with no opportunity to talk about the issues. The children, who accept their mother's sexual orientation, were identified on screen as ''Has a Problem With Lesbian Mom.''
Sayward's son originally agreed to go on behind a screen, fearing the reaction of his high school classmates. An hour before the show started, a producer took him aside and confided that they only put ''child molesters and gangsters'' behind screens. She convinced him to sit with his back to the audience instead of being shielded. He was easily identifiable.
''We felt exploited as human beings ... manipulated and used,'' Sayward says.
Mr. Dubrow and other supporters of talk TV say they can count on their hands the number of guests who've left dissatisfied.
They say most are like Marjory Chapell of Jacksonville, Fla., whose ex-husband abducted her two children in 1990. After her plea and appearance on ''The Jerry Springer Show'' last year, enough leads resulted to help authorities find the children.
''What they did was wonderful for us,'' says Ms. Chapell, who was reunited with her children shortly after the show aired.
When the Schmitz trial begins later this month, it will bring the debate into national focus. Wherever one chooses to lay the blame for the the death of Scott Amedure, it's clear the consequences of the ''surprise'' on ''Jenny Jones'' went far beyond simple entertainment.