IV. Criticism Builds: The Pros and Cons

FCC Chairman Dean Burch and Senator John Pastore attempted in vain in the 1970s to attack the rise in sexually explicit programming as “smut.” But they were overwhelmed by the growing power of the broadcasters, along with the public’s desire to talk about forbidden topics.

After the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed by U.S. anti-government fanatics in 1995, President Clinton denounced “the purveyors of hatred and division,” referring to extremist radio talk shows. In an April 24, 1995, speech to the American Association of Community Colleges in Minneapolis, he said such talk shows “spread hate. They leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.”

Along with the violent hate speech, explicit sex talk troubled the critics. With more than 20 nationally syndicated television talk programs on the air by the fall of 1995, moderate senator Joseph Lieberman joined those on the religious right to decry many of these programs as “pornographic” and degrading to U.S. culture. In an editorial in Electronic Media, he noted that during a February 1995 “sweeps” week, Rolanda showcased porn stars reuniting with their first loves,Jenny Jones had men and their girlfriends who wanted to be porn stars, and Richard Bey set up a competition between housewives and strippers. Lieberman complained that the constant confrontations, emotional violence, and sexual messages children could see regularly on talk shows taught them perverse lessons about adult behavior and problem solving.

Not only were an estimated 8.3 million children under the age of 17 watching some television in the United States, according to Nielsen Media Research in the 1994-1995 season, but, he said, “the preponderance of perversion on daytime talk shows is affecting our entire society.., pushing the envelope of civility and morality in a way that drags the rest of the culture down with it.”

Defenders argued that their programs enhanced the diversity and honesty of U.S. culture. Host Geraldo Rivera said that talk shows have “been ahead of the cultural curve since Phil Donahue shocked millions with his pioneering programs on lesbians, atheists, feminism, gender confusion and male exotic dancers” in the mid-1960s. Rivera ‘s on-air brawl with skinheads on his program “did more to focus negative attention on the epidemic of hate in our country than all the Anti Defamation League bulletins ever issued,” he said.

Sally Jessy Raphael also argued that her programs were providing a positive education to young people. “These shows are like morality plays. The audience always tells the bad people off–the young girls who are getting pregnant, the men who are abusing their wives, the women cheating on their husbands.” Other hosts said they were offering help, rather than exploiting their humiliated guests. Paramount Television Group’s Montel Williams Show boasted on its Web site in September 1999 that through the show’s “after-care program” it “successfully arranges for guests to attend psychological treatment, motivational camps, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and treatment for eating disorders.” But critics were not buying that excuse. One outraged citizen, Elayne Rapping, concluded in an online rant in 2001 about talk shows that the real harm was “that they co-opt and constrain real political change. They are all talk and no action.”

In countries such as Mexico, Venezuela, and Germany, governments went farther, forcing some programming to late-night slots and fining them for degrading content. Germany’s Vera am Mittag was fined 200,000 marks (about $122,000) for inviting a diaper fetishist to share his experiences with the audience and Sonia was fined for airing a slugfest between a mother and her 11-year-old daughter.