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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

The 'Jones' Verdict--As the Squirm Turns

May 12, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

First the verdict, now the spin.

The rutabaga on the screen is Jenny Jones, her eyes sparkless, her face as vacant as a turnip. There's no evidence of guile, nor even a glimmer of fakery as she says to Katie Couric with the sincerity of a true believer, her pale suit, blouse, skin and hair bleeding together reassuringly like pastels in a muted still-life:

"I defend the right to have gay people on the show."

With equal innocence, she adds later: "This is about homophobia."

Say what? Can she really be this clueless, such an impenetrable dead head? Can she really believe that the lawsuit brought against "Jenny Jones" by Scott Amedure's family was about her show booking gay guests? Or about anti-gay bias? Or about elitist "snobbery" aimed at "trash TV," as she told another NBC interviewer, Jane Pauley?

Instead of about the show's stunning recklessness in mishandling one particular guest, Jonathan Schmitz?

Or is this performer--who heads a syndicated talk show formatted along the lines of those starring Sally Jessy Raphael, Ricki Lake and Montel Williams--just good at playing dumb and dumber?

Not good enough, certainly, to sway the Pontiac, Mich., jury that Friday found "Jenny Jones" negligent--to the tune of $25 million--in Schmitz's fatal shotgunning of Amedure shortly after its taping of an unaired segment titled "Same-Sex Secret Crushes."

But good enough, perhaps, to persuade the coast-to-coast jury she addressed during very tough interviews Sunday night on NBC's "Dateline" with Pauley and Monday morning on NBC's "Today" program with Couric.

In that infamous 1995 taping of "Jenny Jones," Amedure disclosed to the cameras and a studio audience that he had a crush on--and sexual fantasies about--his acquaintance Schmitz, who said he was heterosexual. "I thought about tying him up in my hammock," confided a smiling Amedure. Egged on by Jones, he went on about wanting to do something to Schmitz involving whipped cream, champagne and "things like that."

Schmitz was trapped in a classic ambush-the-guest prank symbolizing the twisted Gotcha! mentality driving much of TV this decade, this one featuring the standard mortification close-up. That meant showing Schmitz cover his face with his hands out of embarrassment.

Although he appeared genial about being publicly identified as Amedure's crushee, the fuse had been lit.

A number of legal experts predict that Friday's verdict will be overturned on appeal. If so, that will not affect the ethical or moral case against "Jenny Jones," for having a legal right to do something under the wide umbrella of the 1st Amendment doesn't always mean having a moral right. For example, had Couric and Pauley known something embarrassing about Jones, should they have exercised their 1st Amendment rights and hit her with it with cameras rolling just for the fun of it? Of course not.

More than freedom of expression, good sense and common decency should prevail, whether the venue is NBC News or "Jenny Jones."

Should "Jenny Jones" and its owner, Warner Bros., ultimately bear no legal responsibility for Schmitz pulling the trigger, they still will bear a lethal responsibility for roaring through this red light without regard for cross traffic. "Jenny Jones" has been doing it. As have like-minded shows, including Sally Jessy wearing her most compassionate face to turn an exploitative TV spotlight on troubled kids under the pretense of helping them. Where are the headlines about potential damage done to them inside their heads?

*

Such shows don't probe the psyches of guests they purposely place in discomfort. How could they? Besides lacking the inclination, they haven't the resources. And the thought of relying on the diagnosis of one of their own pop therapists--the telegenic ones they often include in segments as window dressing--in itself is chilling.

The answer? Immediately stop producing segments that intentionally grip guests in vices of mental stress just so voyeuristic viewers can watch them squirm.

This does not include such violent movies as "The Basketball Diaries" or "Natural Born Killers" that may inadvertently tap latent violence in someone predisposed that way. The difference is that talk shows aim their cross-hairs at specific targets.

What Jones and her staff learned too late was that Schmitz's volatile background included alcoholism, depression, three suicide attempts and a hang-up about homosexuality. One so severe that three days after the taping he went to Amedure's mobile home and blew him away.

Schmitz's 1996 second-degree murder conviction for the shooting was thrown out on appeal, and a retrial is set for Aug. 19.

He has insisted that "Jenny Jones" producers misled him by saying a female would surprise him on the segment. The show's lawyers claimed it played no role in Amedure's death because Schmitz was informed his secret admirer could be either gender. If so, and if the intent weren't embarrassment, why not eliminate all doubt and tell Schmitz straight out that it would be a man?

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