August 27, 2004


Daytime TV Gets Judgmental (Harry Stein, Spring 2004, City Journal)

Forget Janet Jackson’s notorious Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”; forget the soul-deadening sexuality constantly displayed on MTV; Exhibit A in the argument that television is a purveyor of rotten values remains the longtime champ: The Jerry Springer Show. Only, here’s the weird thing: in its current incarnation, Springer’s latter-day freak show also provides evidence of a growing resurgence in this country of higher standards of decency and morality. It’s a trend nowhere more evident than on daytime television. [...]

Generally speaking, [...] daytime reality television gets more recognizably real as the day goes along. Considerably more reputable than Springer (for however much that’s worth) is the show that follows him in the New York market: Maury. For while Maury Povich, husband of newscaster Connie Chung and son of legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, also presides over an exploitation fest—airing shows, for instance, on mothers accused of seducing their daughters’ boyfriends—he is clearly far more willing to cast the proceedings as socially beneficial and even morally instructive.

Trading largely in messy interpersonal relations, Maury likes to present himself as a seeker of truth. Among his staples: using a lie detector to determine if one party in a relationship, usually the guy, is guilty as accused of cheating (he usually is). But Povich’s real specialty, the gimmick around which almost every other broadcast revolves, is the paternity test. The formula never varies. A woman, usually very young and very often black or Hispanic, comes onstage and declares, either angrily or tearfully, that she knows a given man fathered her child. After a couple of minutes of this drama, the accused male walks out—often, depending on how he’s just been characterized, to audience jeers—and just as vigorously denies that he is the father. The denial routinely involves the guy pointing toward a large picture of the kid in question, which is displayed at the back of the set, and emphasizing how dramatically the child’s features differ from his own. He’ll often cast aspersions on the mother’s character, too, peppering them with variations of the words “slut” and “whore.”

At this point, Maury says something along the lines of, “Well, let’s find out.” Ripping open a large manila envelope, he withdraws a sheet of paper and solemnly pronounces, “When it comes to two-year-old Jadiem, Corey, you are the father,” or, just as often, “When it comes to ten-month-old Treasure, Earnell, you are not the father.”

If the woman finds herself vindicated, she is apt to leap to her feet, exultant, and berate the man. One mother I saw spun around, thrust her backside to the camera and, pointing, screamed at the newly established dad, “Kiss my ass!” When the man is victorious, he is likely to strut, or throw up his hands in triumph like an athlete, while the woman, bursting into tears, runs backstage, Maury trailing—and both followed by a cameraman who records the host consoling her.

This human drama makes, I’m embarrassed to admit, for riveting television. But there is also enough sociology at play to leave one feeling only slightly unclean. For what we are witnessing here are flesh-and-blood examples of underclass pathology. The supply of accusers and accused seems inexhaustible. On one recent installment, the mother was back for a fifth time, testing two men (the seventh and eighth she’d had tested overall) for paternity of her toddler Mustafa—neither proving a match, as it turned out.

The host’s attitude toward all this dysfunction is somewhat ambivalent. Unfailingly, if the DNA establishes a given man as a child’s father, Maury forthrightly asks the guy if he now intends to become part of the child’s life. The typical response: “Yeah, I’m a man, I’ll step up to the plate.” Or: “I’m a man, I take care of my business.”

Nor, at least occasionally, does Povich try to hide his distress over what is unfolding before his cameras. “Sophia, let me ask you a question, because a lot of people are wondering this,” he said gently to one young woman before the results were in. “You say you got pregnant with him [once before], and had a miscarriage, and you say he laughed at you. So why would you sleep with him again?” Of course, she could offer no plausible answer. “You’ve got two children together,” he said to another couple, screaming profanities at each other after the show had established the man’s paternity. “Don’t you want them to grow up in a home where their mother and father respect each other? Don’t you want that?” The thought seemed not to have pierced the consciousness of either.

Yet from Maury there is never any real condemnation. Though the show pays lip service to the resurgent traditionalist virtue of accepting personal responsibility, the host often still seems to embrace the doctrine, so fashionable among post-sixties elites, that no sin is greater than passing judgment. The show typically ends not just without any expression of commonsense outrage—“You’ve had six kids by five different women? What is WRONG with you?!”—but also without any attention paid to the obvious, larger issue: the utter moral chaos of the world these guests inhabit. (The same moral schizophrenia appears in the commercials between segments. Nearly half the ads are pitches for job training—in air-conditioning or automotive repair, say, or hairdressing or secretarial work. The rest seem to be for sleazy ambulance-chasing law firms: “If you’ve been injured in an accident, tell the insurance company you mean business!”)

The one word almost never heard on Maury is “marriage”—the practice of which offers the best hope of refuge for these desperate women and their fatherless children. Of course, this neglect of marriage, too, is of a piece with contemporary elite attitudes, which not only tend to portray matrimony as confining but, with celebrity unwed mothers like Calista Flockhart in mind, often celebrate single motherhood as a valid alternative life-style—as if the decision of an unmarried Hollywood starlet to have a child is remotely akin to that of a 17-year-old girl in the South Bronx.

Even as I was monitoring the Povich show, the New York Times ran a hostile lead editorial on the Bush administration’s $1.5 billion initiative in support of marriage. “The whole idea of encouraging poor people to get married and stay married through classes and counseling sessions,” the Times complained, “ignores the main reason that stable wedlock is rare in inner cities: the epidemics of joblessness and incarceration that have stripped those communities of what social scientists call ‘marriageable’ men.”

The Times editorial board might well take a few mornings off to watch Maury. Many of the men who appear on Povich’s stage for paternity tests are neither jobless nor criminally inclined. More than a few, in fact, are bright and charming. As one explained himself, moments before being nailed as the father (possessed of all the breezy confidence of billionaire producer Steven Bing before a DNA test established him as the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s child): “Any time I wanted a booty call, I’d call her. . . . She’s the neighborhood ‘ho.’ ” And, he added for good measure, “The baby does not look like me at all.”

But if Povich tends to avoid passing judgment, daytime television from late morning into the afternoon now offers an array of other personalities whose job is to judge: the TV judges ruling on real cases in their courtroom sets.

In recent years, these judge shows have proliferated at an astonishing rate. In the New York market alone there are now seven on view every weekday—five ruled over by bona fide ex-jurists gone showbiz (the other two “judges” are lawyers). These shows provide yet another snapshot of latter-day American culture and mores—and not an especially pretty one, since it reveals a culture in considerable ethical disarray. Though this ethical breakdown is not exactly news, these shows powerfully demonstrate the degree to which moral laxity can wreak havoc in individual lives. Here we find parents ready to explain away even the most egregiously antisocial behavior by their children; motorists who believe the requirements of registration and insurance need not apply to them; legions of people who readily justify having trashed others’ property; and many, many jerks who borrow money from friends and lovers and later blithely insist that the loans were gifts.

At the same time, the collective success of such shows signals something more encouraging: the public’s yearning for real accountability and rigorously enforced standards. For though the TV judges vary a good deal in personal style, in the end what they share is of vastly greater importance: each is an unapologetic advocate of old-fashioned, no-excuses, responsible behavior. Indeed, in their judicial robes, dispensing commonsense justice between commercial breaks, they are probably the closest many Americans come to having authority figures in their lives. And though the shows are entertaining, each judge clearly takes his or her educative role extremely seriously.

The ascending level of moral judgementalism over the course of the day almost certainly corresponds to the gender difference of the viewership as it gets later. A famous poll asks folks whether they'd enforce the law strictly against a man who stole bread to feed his family and women were far more reluctant to do so than men.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 27, 2004 10:56 AM

Class differences too.

Posted by: Peter B at August 27, 2004 12:10 PM

Sounds like Atlas Shrugged where the youthful Hank Rearden was starving to death but too honorable to steal bread to feed himself. Later in life, he becomes an industrial magnate because he's just that damned honorable.
If I were starving to death, I'd steal the damned bread. And if my children were starving to death, I'd probably kill to get it and to Hell with morality. If I have to damn my soul to save my kids, I'd do it without a moment's hesitation. Well, I hope I would.

Posted by: Governor Breck at August 27, 2004 12:21 PM

Lordy -- you excerpted precisely 34.96% of the original City Journal piece. Did you miss this little item on the page? "Copyright The Manhattan Institute"

Posted by: tomas at August 27, 2004 12:25 PM

Steal the bread from a bread thief. That way he has gotten his comeuppance, and you have morally neutral bread. Or something.

Posted by: Guy T. at August 27, 2004 12:26 PM
O woman! lovely woman! Nature made thee To temper man: we had been brutes without you. Angels are painted fair, to look like you: There's in you all that we believe of heaven, Amazing brightness, purity, and truth, Eternal joy, and everlasting love.
Posted by: djs at August 27, 2004 12:49 PM


You must have met women who were a whole lot of different from the ones I've known.

Posted by: Brandon at August 27, 2004 1:59 PM

These daytime "talk" shows are a reality check to the idealized New Morality portrayed in such shows as Friends, Sex and the City and Will and Grace. I'll take the problems and pressures of married life over the chaos, indignity and loneliness of the uncommitted life any day.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 27, 2004 2:41 PM

I took some lessons away from this.

First, the Democrats really need to worry if people are realizing that strict judgment is very appropriate.

Second, it seems that people, however slowly, can actually change their attitudes due solely to material consequences.

Third, the quality and clarity of his writing far exceeds anything on the left. While I hate to encourage him, that rather corroborates OJ thesis on comedy.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 27, 2004 8:06 PM

The one word almost never heard on Maury is marriagethe practice of which offers the best hope of refuge for these desperate women and their fatherless children.

Yeah, except that being married won't help these particular people, or their children.
Their actions will continue in the same vein, married or not.

Marriage can help wiser, less self-centered people.

But not the chumps on 'Jerry Springer' or 'Maury'.
As they say on 'Loveline': "I'm begging you, don't have kids."

Governor Breck:

The only way one can condemn a starving man who steals food is if everyone is starving.

Guy T.:

I believe that according to Thomas Hobbes, once the bread has been successfully stolen, it "belongs" to the thief.
If one were to steal it from the new owner, regardless of how it was acquired, under some philosophies one would still be committing a negative act.
In fact, there's even US law based on that.
If one were to steal the proceeds of a bank robbery from the previous thieves, TWO crimes would have been committed.


Thomas Otway nailed it in one, pace Brandon's post.

Robert Duquette:

Amen, brother.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 27, 2004 11:55 PM