Talk Show Torts

In light of this week’s settlement in the NBC Dateline case, this past column on talk show liability may be of some interest. From cop shows to talk shows, reality television can suddenly throw average citizens into highly stressful or embarrassing situations. In the recent Dateline case, such actions were alleged as the cause of the suicide of a prosecutor who was accused of sexually explicit communications with an adult posing as a child in a chat room.

HEADLINE: Could this case be the end of TV talk show traps?

BYLINE: By Jonathan Turley

In the 18th century, the good citizens of Nags Head, N.C., would
lure passing ships to their destruction by hanging lamps at night
as false harbor markers. Once the ships crashed on the rocks,
the residents would salvage the floating wreckage.

This ancient practice appeared to be at the heart of the case
against Jenny Jones. Although talk shows are more interested
in seeing the wreck itself than recovering the wreckage, their
hosts and producers have adopted the defense of their maritime
predecessors: Any injuries are due to the free choices of their
guests, not their own inducements.

In the Jenny Jones case, however, it was the wreckage that
a jury saw before its $ 25 million verdict last week against the
syndicated talk show for negligence. If this verdict survives
appeal, the age of talk show torts may soon go the way of the
Nags Head lights.

The facts of the case are well-known. Jenny Jones arranged for
Jonathan Schmitz to appear on her show in 1995 as part of her
signature “secret admirer” segment. As someone with a history
of mental illness, alcoholism and three suicide attempts, Schmitz
was a poor choice for any tabloid program. Waiting offstage, Schmitz
thought he was going to be reunited with a former girlfriend.
Instead, Schmitz was surprised to find that his secret admirer
was Scott Amedure, a gay friend.

With Jones encouraging Amedure to give details, Schmitz sat on
camera as Amedure described his erotic fantasy, which involved
restraints, a hammock and whipped cream. Schmitz would later call
his father to express his shame for being the subject of a televised
gay fantasy. Within three days of the show, he shot Amedure to

Not the cause?

For her part, Jones insisted that she was not a cause of the tragedy:
“I really believe that with or without our show, this relationship
could easily have progressed just the way it did.”

It is not difficult to see why the jury believed that the relationship
“progressed the way it did” because of Jones’ inducement of
flying the men to New York and orchestrating the confrontation
for national television.

In a nation famous for its personal injury cases, talk shows have
long engaged in conduct unthinkable for any other business. It
is not surprising that ratings for such shows as Jerry Springer
are stratospheric: People cannot find actual violence in any
other media. These shows offer what professional wrestling and
the movies can only mimic: actual violence and human degradation.

The carrot, the stick

Of course, some guests are not so easily lured to the studios.
Sally Jessy Raphael and Maury Povich once fought
over booking a woman who cut out her own breast implants. Raphael
producers, the woman claimed in a HBO documentary, called her
while she was in a hospital and threatened a lawsuit if she didn’t
go to the studio.

When human mutilation is not available, human combat is always
a popular alternative. Geraldo Rivera’s ratings soared with the
production of a riot of skinheads and minorities in which the
host participated.

The reason professional wrestling promoters would never attempt
the violence of talk shows is that they know actual violence would
lead to lawsuits. Hulk Hogan could not hope to achieve the
level of violence of Jerry Springer without leaving the
World Wrestling Federation for his own talk show.

Ironically, the most extraordinary aspect of the Jones ruling
may be that the show finally has produced a worthy subject for
debate. As Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer stand lantern in hand
on the shore, they may find their trade increasingly costly. Like
inducing ship wrecks, setting talk show traps is profitable only
when the victims are cheap and the community is silent.

Jonathan Turley
USA Today; May 13, 1999