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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Talk About TV Hosts: New Shows! New Values!

June 12, 1995|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Some talk-show hosts are wearing new skins.

Montel Williams has himself a CBS drama series for fall, playing a high school science teacher in an "inner-city war zone" where "illiteracy, drugs, street gangs and teen-age pregnancy are formidable enemies." Instead of merely being topics on his syndicated talk show, along with one-night affairs, conceited men, bigamists, man-stealing teens, promiscuous teen boys and teens who murder their parents.

And tonight, after enlightening viewers last week with episodes devoted to philanderers, roommates competing for men, lesbian affairs, troubled friendships and prostitutes, Jerry Springer resurfaces in the Federal Correction Institution at Sheridan, Ore.

That's a bit extreme. His talk show isn't that criminal.

Actually, Springer is there only to interview Jeffrey R. MacDonald, the former Green Beret surgeon who has spent 14 years in prison for the 1970 slayings of his pregnant wife and their two young daughters. MacDonald has always claimed that three men and a woman with blond hair, a short skirt and a floppy hat broke into his home and murdered his family as he slept.

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Because it's Springer, you half expect MacDonald to reveal that he's a transsexual or to be accused of having a secret lover. The latter is what "Hard Copy" sprang on MacDonald several years ago when it suckered him into an interview that became so revolting that you found yourself pulling for MacDonald even if he was guilty.

The occasion for Springer's visit, however, is "Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders," a new book by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost that raises serious questions about MacDonald's conviction.

Based on a preview tape, Springer is persuaded. While giving lip service to objectivity, he all but climbs upon MacDonald's lap and assumes the fetal position, affirming that swinging couples are more his style than probes of complex criminal cases concerning alleged miscarriages of justice.

The Springer program (airing at 11 tonight on KCAL-TV Channel 9) does contain excerpts from "False Witness," Ted Landreth's excellent 1989 BBC documentary eroding the case against MacDonald. And flaws and all, the hour rises far above the promised fare of Springer's talk-show counterparts, whose advertised topics today include pregnant teens, vacation romances, mothers of jilted daughters, boyfriends disliked by mothers, a teen who killed his mother's boyfriend and discarding old clothes.

Jane Whitney, meantime, is shedding blame.

In the current issue of U.S. News & World Report, she reveals that she privately agonized over the "exhibitionism" of the banal syndicated talk show that she hosted from 1992 to 1994. Poor baby.

"Increasingly, the audience and I saw the same guests through different lenses," Whitney writes in a two-page commentary. "They saw entertainment; I saw exhibitionism--albeit by consenting adults." She adds, "It was worse when children were hauled into the fray. Whenever possible, youngsters and especially infants were used to hook the viewer by upping the emotional ante."

Thus, we can assume that Whitney was deeply distressed when an 8-year-old boy listened on her show to his aunt announce that he'd been abandoned by his mother because "she didn't want him." And when her predatory cameras dollied in for close-ups of two girls who cried while hearing their mother describe their father as a "deadbeat dad."

Inexcusable? Sure, but what was a talk-show host to do? Whitney says her suggestions for responsible topics were dismissed as being "Nielsen flatliners." The only course open to her was to suffer. Thus, how awful she must have felt while hosting "My Mother Is a Party Animal" with "fortysomething mothers bulging out of their bustiers" while "swapping invectives with their adult daughters."

And does anyone think it was pleasant for the anguishing Whitney when her show booked a couple who had been caught having sex on a department store bed? And what a downer when her show flew in a mother who had been estranged from her son for two years without knowing why. Whitney says he had asked to come on the show and publicly reveal to his mother that, following sexual reassignment surgery, he was now almost a she. Couldn't he do it with a phone call?

Before the show, Whitney found the puzzled mother backstage weeping. "Do you know what's wrong?" she asked Whitney. "We were always so close. I don't know what's happened. Is he sick? Does he have AIDS?"

The woman, recalls Whitney, "broke my heart." But again, what was the tormented Whitney to do? "To tip her son's secret before the cameras rolled would sabotage the surprise." Better to ruin the mother than the show.

When the son appeared before his mother on camera wearing a dress, adds Whitney, the woman broke down and sobbed. Inwardly, of course, Whitney sobbed too.

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