The truth gets in the way of a good story

March 21, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's called tabloid TV. It's often reckless, sometimes sleazy and always sensational. And if you don't believe it, watch "The Montel Williams Show" at 3 p.m. today and tomorrow on WMAR, Channel 2.

Today, Williams is going to air the first of a two-part interview with a Baltimore man who says that he is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and that he has raped 90 prostitutes in the city.

It's an emotional session. The man cries as he talks about his addiction to crack, his "rage" when he couldn't get cocaine, and the details of rape. During the interview, the camera cuts from tight shots of the man's tortured face to tight shots of Williams looking concerned and troubled by what he's hearing. It's scary, gut-grabbing stuff.

There's just one problem: The police say he's lying.

After interviewing the man, 37-year-old Jerome Stanfield, and checking his story, Baltimore police spokesman Doug Price says the guy made the whole thing up. Stanfield later recanted everything he said to Williams during the show, which was taped last week in New York.

So, if the police say it's a hoax, and the guy says he lied, why are these sensational claims of serial rape in Baltimore going to be shown for two hours on national TV? To answer that you have to understand the people who traffic in tabloid TV. It's a world where restraint, facts and the truth are almost never allowed to stand in the way of getting a hot story on the air. Remember the actors and actresses who last year revealed they'd made the rounds of afternoon talk shows posing as "everyday people" with sexually provocative stories to tell?

"We know that [Stanfield] retracted what he said and that the police say it's all a hoax, but we're definitely still going to air the shows," says Jennifer Geisser, a spokeswoman for "The Montel Williams Show."

"Why are we airing the shows? We're going to air the shows because he said it. He said he raped 90 women in Baltimore. That's what he told us. And we believe him. We also believe he needs help. I mean, we didn't go looking for him. He called us.

"He watches Montel and called on a 900-number line that viewers can call. He said he called Montel because he believes Montel can help him."

Geisser says the producers validated Stanfield's story before they put it on the air.

That validation consisted of confirming that Stanfield was who he says he is, and calling a Baltimore psychiatrist to confirm that Stanfield was his patient, as Stanfield had told the producers he was. (The show paid Stanfield's air fare and hotel room in New York but did not pay him a fee for being on the show, according to producers.)

Geisser said they did not check Stanfield's claim of raping 90 women.

"How could we? That's why we're airing the interview. Maybe one of the women will see the interview with Montel and come forward," she said.

The dividing line between responsible and reckless is in checking uncorroborated allegations before airing them -- especially if they come from someone the producers think "needs help."

People call and walk into newsrooms every day with stories like ** Stanfield's. Some may be true. But when a responsible news organization encounters a story it thinks might be true, it checks the story thoroughly before airing or printing it.

Checking this story would start with talking to the police, but it could go beyond that if editors thought the police had some reason to withhold information.

A thorough check would include talking to sexual assault counselors in the area, as well as street sources involved in prostitution.

If that many rapes occurred, it seems someone in one of those worlds would have heard something about them.

If any corroboration could be found for Stanfield's claims, the telecast might be justified. But "The Montel Williams Show" made no effort to find anything like that.

And neither has WMAR.

"The Montel Williams Show" is syndicated, which means it's sold to stations city by city. WMAR is under no obligation to carry the shows today and tomorrow.

But it will air them, according to Joe Lewin, the station's general manager.

"You know, you talk to police, and they say the guy's a fake. And then you talk to the producers of 'The Montel Williams Show,' and they say they have reason to believe that there's something to this and the guy shouldn't be allowed on the streets," Lewin said.

"It seems to me, it would be prudent to let the show run and let people look at it and make up their own minds. It's bizarre."

And bizarre gets the green light almost every time from the media gatekeepers in the world of tabloid TV.

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