Tabloid TV's Catch-22

April 01, 1994

Andy Warhol once said that, in the future, everybody would get their 15 minutes of fame. Well, the future seems to be here. Twice this week, Jerome Stanfield, a 37-year-old Baltimore resident, appeared on "The Montel Williams Show" to "confess" he had raped 90 prostitutes from 1990 through 1992. The producers of the daytime talk-TV show promoted the interviews as an unprecedented expose of a serial rapist.

The only problem is that police say it never happened.

The show was taped last week in New York City and aired in Baltimore Monday and Tuesday afternoons. But minutes after the taping Mr. Stanfield changed his story and insisted to reporters that he hadn't raped anyone. Later he recanted his story altogether.

Baltimore City police, who traveled to New York to question Mr. Stanfield, say they have found no reports of serial rapes of prostitutes in the city and believe Mr. Stanfield made up the claims.

Yet the shows aired anyway -- even though Mr. Williams and his producers had every reason to suspect Mr. Stanfield had perpetrated a hoax.

No responsible editor or television news director would publish or air such a story under those circumstances. But here's the catch: "Montel Williams" isn't really a "news" show at all -- it's an entertainment program made to look like "news."

Many people who saw the programs, however, assumed that the information was accurate. Since the program mimics the trappings of legitimate news interviews, viewers had no way of knowing that what they were being offered was merely a titillating fantasy.

The episode points up how thin the line separating legitimate "news" from entertainment has become. The growing popularity of tabloid TV threatens to erase it altogether. The problem recalls the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of the 1930s that prompted thousands of listeners to scurry for safety from a purported Martian "invasion."

Today's hoaxes -- perpetrated by sensationalized talk-shows like Mr. Williams' and "reality" TV programs with "reenactments" supposedly corresponding to events -- are more subtle but equally dangerous. Yet the producers of such shows self-righteously proclaim a mandate to mislead the public under the rubric of "entertainment value."

That's a cynical quibble. What they really mean is that when the truth doesn't serve the profit motive, to hell with the truth. It's an attitude that ought to give new meaning to the ancient Roman injunction, "buyer beware."

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