Last month I was watching a crime show on Identification Discovery hosted by Aphrodite Jones. This episode dealt with the murder of Jasmine Fiore, who was killed by her husband of 5 months, Ryan Jenkins. Jenkins had been a contestant on a reality show on VH-1 called “Megan Wants a Millionaire”, which was canceled and never aired after Fiore’s death. He also had a record for assaulting a girlfriend in Canada two years prior.
Ms. Jones interviewed a guest commentator about this crime, and reality shows in general – a clinical psychologist, Dr. Richard Levak. Dr. Levak is a specialist in the field of personality and has a private practice in California. His credentials are extensive, having authored four books and numerous articles on the subject of personalities and a test known as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. He, along with a colleague, Dr. Liza Siegel, has also worked with producers of television reality shows such as “Survivor”, “The Amazing Race”, “Big Brother” and “The Apprentice”. His role with these programs had been to provide assistance in casting, risk assessment of reality show applicants and production support. In other words, he is not Dr. Sophy.
The MMPI has been widely used by psychologists since its’ introduction in 1939. It has undergone some changes over the years and the version now employed is the MMPI-2. It is an extensive test wherein personality profiles are determined from the true or false answers to over 500 statements. The individual responses are not as important as the patterns that are revealed. It’s a test where lying and cheating are nearly impossible.
Levak worked with program producers to find candidates whose personalities would provide the viewing public with interest and entertainment. They also wanted to ensure that these same applicants could withstand the glare of the spotlight without serious repercussions. During his time with the networks and producers, Levak maintains that none of them wanted any sort of made-up drama. Those who appeared on the programs would be followed by the cameras without influences. Editing would enhance a personality but not manufacture it.
Editing has been blamed for any number of problems and by any number of reality cast members for how they have been portrayed. There is some truth to their claims. We have seen some reality stars been turned into monsters or angels, depending on what storyline needs to be driven home. As early as the first season of MTV’s “Real World”, cast members complained about they way they were portrayed. Some said that they were put into situations with others simply to create conflict or heighten existing hostility.
In his article “The Ethics of Reality Television Producers”, Edward Wasserman, a Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University,wrote that this was referred to in the television industry as the “Frankenstein bite”. It is how producers fill in story lines by cutting and splicing whatever footage is available. It certainly appears to be in direct conflict with what Dr. Levak was trying to accomplish. It leaves one with the impression that the personality assessments are being used by the networks for all the wrong reasons.
We have watched Bravo, and other networks, create such situations and resort to equally unfair editing to “amp it up”. We know that the Countess did not treat her fellow Housewives to a trip to Morocco, and that they would have gone on vacation together in real life. The ladies of Atlanta would never travel together as far as Starbucks, never mind South Africa, were it not for their contractual obligations. Reality television doesn’t just flirt with danger, it courts it. If all of the networks had the safety and security of their casts in mind, Jasmine Fiore might still be alive, Teresa Giudice would have been looking for a new job after her first table toss and the only reality TV Marlo Hampton would be appearing on would be “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted”.
Dr. Levak, when he first started to work with Mark Burnett on “Survivor”, noted that this role was a tricky one. He was worried about blurring the line between his professional obligations and needs of the television industry, as well as the inherent danger of breaches of confidentiality and trust. He expressed concern for the those who did end up on some of these programs to the extent that their realities would also become blurred. He cared about the fact that these people were not actors, and, therefor, had no real idea about the “roles” they were soon to experience.
Levak went on to say that were very real concerns for these cast members after the cameras were gone. For a time, he and Dr. Siegel offered post-show counseling, a sort of television debriefing period. Both doctors noted that contestants and cast members reacted differently once they had left their respective shows, depending on how they had been portrayed. Now, from we have been watching, the portrayal isn’t nearly important as remaining on a show. Villain or darling – it doesn’t really matter as long as you can say you’re on TV.
Dr. Levak is no longer working as a reality television consultant. He had parted ways with “Survivor” after six seasons. There was only so much that he could have offered and had influence over, anyway. The networks and producers have a number of opposing interests as they try to make viewers, executives and sponsors happy. The cost of producing one hour of a reality show is somewhere between one quarter and one third of that of a scripted show.
Reality television has already demonstrated that the larger the personality – the more that cast members are willing to bring dramatic, even tragic and disturbing, story lines – the better. So, perhaps, psychological and criminal backgrounds will be ignored or exploited, or never even considered. Completely controlling contracts will be signed by people who want nothing more than their chance at Warhol’s “15 minutes”. Some of those people will be damaged along the way, and the networks will defend themselves by pointing to the participants’ willingness to join in the fun and the fame. Entertainment is a business and every business does its’ own cost-benefit analysis.
I was watching some of the coverage of Whitney Houston’s funeral on CNN, and one of the anchors mentioned that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had ordered all flags in the State be flown at half-staff. He did the same thing when Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band died. Both times it bothered me. Ordering the flag of the United States to be lowered is meant to be an honor reserved for those who have, in some way, served and protected the public good. It is a deeply solemn and respectful salute to those who have truly sacrificed their lives in service to the nation.
The order issued on Saturday, and for Mr. Clemons, dilutes the meaning of “hero”. It is not meant for celebrities, no matter how talented they are. It is a very bad precedent and I hope it is not followed by other political leaders. If it should become a trend, then we might as well keep our flags permanently at half-staff because there are Americans dying every day who have given at least as much, if not more, in service to their country as did Ms. Houston. The difference is that their contributions are much quieter and less public – just everyday people performing acts of sacrifice and generosity for their neighbors and communities.
Maybe it was because I had just finished writing my post on ethical issues, but this seemed to me to be a case of shameless political pandering. As for Mr. Christie, well let’s hope The Boss, himself, doesn’t die any time soon – the Governor might just add a 21 gun salute.