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Trash TV Shouldn't Be News

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Maybe I'm just getting old, but the media coverage of Bruce Jenner's transformation into Caitlyn and the Duggar family saga strike me as evidence that our society has become unhinged.

I'd never heard of the Duggars or their TLC show, "19 Kids and Counting," until two weeks ago when the story broke that the eldest child, now an adult, had resigned his job for the lobbying arm of the conservative Family Research Council over allegations that he had fondled his sisters as a young teenager.

As for Jenner, I didn't know he was married to a Kardashian -- a name I know primarily from the O.J. Simpson trial, for which the original patriarch served as defense counsel -- much less that he was having an identity crisis.

I didn't know any of these things because I have never watched a reality TV show. Am I just a snob? I don't think so. It isn't that I don't engage in mindless activities to relax -- I watch silly pet videos on Facebook when a friend posts them. I was addicted to "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." And, while I hate to admit it because some of the content is disgusting, I've watched every episode of "Game of Thrones."

But reality TV, it seems to me, is of an entirely different species than even the most vapid drama or risque comedy. It isn't entertainment. It's voyeurism. Watching it is like looking through a peephole, albeit one in which the people on the other side are witting exhibitionists playing a role. And this symbiotic charade harms real human beings.

Cersei Lannister is pure evil -- but she is also make-believe. We can wish her ill with impunity. We root for her downfall, and it does no harm. This is the stuff of catharsis.


But what about Jenner and the Duggar family? They are sad, pitiful, real people, not characters, and we should avert our gaze, not gleefully watch their unraveling.

I don't buy that Bruce -- now Caitlyn -- is courageous. Jenner's inner demons, which he is willing to try to exorcise with extensive plastic surgery and artificial hormones, are his own business. Except that he insists on making it ours and is aided in the process not only by trash TV, but by supposedly responsible journalism.

As for the Duggars, they are begging for privacy now after living as exhibitionists for years. Their story is a human tragedy, one that unfortunately befalls more families than we would like to believe. Should son Josh have been prosecuted as a teenager for groping four of his sisters? Maybe, but I doubt his punishment at 14 or 15 would have been much different from the plan the family apparently came up with to deal with it, namely a work program and counseling.

But these family demons, too, could and should have been dealt with privately. Instead, the family decided to welcome millions of Americans into their lives, which was a virtual invitation for those who dislike their fundamentalist lifestyle to delve into their secrets.

The viewers of the shows that have made the Jenners and Duggars of this world famous aren't much different from the patrons of an earlier era's carnival "freak shows." But both the scale and the acceptability of this form of entertainment are vastly greater today.


So, too, are the motivations of the participants. The most famous of the carnival sideshow acts included persons like the "Four-Legged Lady" Myrtle Corbin, who was born with a severe congenital deformity: an extra pair of legs and two pelvises that were the result of conjoined twinning. These performers allowed people to pay to stare because few other opportunities to make a living were available to them. Not so the Jenners, Duggars, Kardashians, Duck Dynasties, housewives of New York, Beverly Hills, wherever. Surely none of them would starve if they couldn't flaunt their strange lives.

There may always be an audience for this kind of thing. But can't those ostensibly engaged in responsible journalism stop putting it on their front pages or headlining their news programs with it? Some people may want to relish the oddities or misfortunes of others, but don't shove them in the faces of the rest of us.

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