SOLOMON: All Hail Jerry Springer, the Latest Media Bad Guy
Many national media outlets are in a state of high moral outrage about Jerry Springer, the current emperor of daytime trash television.Some critics are charging that his program -- a daily presentation of violence, bleeped-out profanity and verbal abuse -- is all too real. Or, at the same time, not real enough. By indignantly accusing the show of fakery, critics indicate that they would prefer authentic sleaziness.What airs on "The Jerry Springer Show" can be troubling. Sometimes, it may seem like a not-too-distant mirror of anguish, idiocy and confusion. Recent titles of the one-hour program have included "My Daughter Is a Teen Prostitute," "I'm Pregnant by My Brother" and "I'm in a Bizarre Love Triangle."Supplying plenty of material to titillate viewers, the guests tell salacious stories, denounce each other and engage in violent confrontations on stage. Meanwhile, renowned individuals in the media business can pose on lofty moral ground and shake their heads.A lot of high-profile head shaking occurred in late April, when ABC's "20/20" and NBC's "Dateline" took turns bemoaning Springer's depravity and greed. Conveniently, both networks chose to broadcast their in-depth Springer coverage in the midst of the ratings sweeps period. Nice to have it both ways.These days, Springer appears to be the king of TV's amoral profiteers. But, despite his millions, he's just a little prince compared to guys like Barry Diller, the media mogul who has pioneered such televised innovations as home shopping channels.Diller is the head of USA Networks Inc., the conglomerate that produces and distributes "The Jerry Springer Show." While Bad Jerry faces down hostile questions from a wide range of journalists, Good Barry stays out of the line of fire, running his vast media empire.As the years pass, the Springers are apt to come and go. They're people who function as products. In contrast, the Dillers tend to have much more staying power -- and their giant companies keep getting bigger.Complaints about trash TV never get very far. That's because most commentators -- whether they consider themselves to be conservatives, liberals or whatever -- are afraid to challenge the "principle" of the so-called free market.Of course, the free market is a myth. Media titans like Diller or Rupert Murdoch -- and corporate outfits such as Time Warner, Disney and Viacom -- have a lock on huge portions of the mass media.Steadily larger in size and fewer in number, the dominant biggies are fixated on doing whatever it takes to boost profits. They're not about to sacrifice any appreciable part of profit margins on behalf of the public interest.Do media tycoons like Diller and blow-dried hirelings like Springer just give the public what it wants? "That is the biggest fallacy in our business," TV journalist Linda Ellerbee retorted a decade ago. "That's the argument that people on our side use to put dreck on the air."People sitting in front of TV sets do not choose from what isn't available. They choose from what is."The American public didn't ask for trash television," Ellerbee pointed out. "They'll watch it the same way we go out and watch a fire. It's not all they want."Now, as arguments fly about "The Jerry Springer Show," insights are diluted by abundant quantities of hogwash.Yes, some of the show's critics are "elitist." They're put off by low-income, unschooled people who don't have the social graces usually regarded as minimal for the airwaves.But Springer's defenders are absurd when they wrap his program in a populist flag. Such TV shows are caricatures.The people on stage are carefully selected to fit a script that stereotypes rather than illuminates. Relatively few Americans are "qualified" to make it onto Jerry Springer's stage. The producers work awfully hard to find them.Meanwhile, Springer and his bosses like to act as though they pay respect to working-class Americans by putting these parodies on the nation's TV screens. But they're not doing anyone a favor -- except Barry Diller and his rich pals.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."