To audience applause, Geraldo Rivera runs down the center aisle of the studio. Three women are seated next to me on stage, ready to talk, their chests nervously heaving, faces frozen in polite smiles. They listen as Geraldo details their shocking biographies to the audience. My pulse accelerates as Geraldo moves beside me, his hype escalating: "Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a "clinical psychologist from Los Angeles, is here to help answer the $64 question: Why would a woman marry her rapist?"
Throughout the show, Geraldo tosses questions at me. Whys, whys and more whys. But, I don't know these women. I am armed with only bits and pieces of their self-justifying explanations. People are authorities on women, on marriage and on rape. But no one is an authority on why women marry their rapists.
I offer only general comments, about low self-esteem (It's always about low self-esteem, isn't it?) and about the illusory bond between rape and the Gothic romance myth of being taken because one is so needed, so desirable. " It's not about love and desire," I say, "It's about anger and dominance." My words go past the three women like whistles down a wind. They don't hear me. They can't hear me. They are not there to be helped. They have come to be validated.
The focus shifts. The studio mikes are activated. The tension rises. The women in the audience are openly furious. Validation is not on their agenda. Their questions and accusations speak betrayal of gender, speak the charge of pandering to the odious stereotype that women secretly want to be raped. The women on stage try to defend the indefensible. It is a battle they cannot win. It is another rape. Only this time it is a gang of women who are angry and want to dominate.
In the show's last segment, Geraldo stands on stage, points to me and says "In 30 seconds or less, Dr. Fischoff, give us your impression of these women."
My mind gulps. "In 30 seconds? Is he kidding?" I ask myself.
No, he's not kidding. My thoughts run wild. "What the hell am I doing here? Open your mouth, say something. Don't embarrass yourself."
My mouth starts before I know what I'm going to say. Out spill the words, glib, facile words. I do my job. I perform.
"What the hell was I doing on Geraldo?" I asked myself a few weeks later viewing a video tape of the show. As a university professor and clinical psychologist in private practice for over 25 years, appearing on television to discuss the human condition was something with which I was comfortable. More accurately, I loved it. College teaching and TV commentary are both performance arts.
Public speaking ranks first among popular phobias so not every academic and not every psychologist relishes the opportunity to speak to millions of people via the electronic pulpit. But if you like offering insightful bon mots on camera and if you do it well, you get ample opportunity. The mass media have taken psychologists to their collective bosom; psychologists and their ilk turn up everywhere, on your television and in your magazines and newspapers, opining away. And if you live in Los Angeles, one of the top media markets and news sources given its identification with Hollywood, your media exposure opportunities are increased to the tenth power.
I began in the 1970s, discussing assertiveness training. Over time, I evolved into what has become known as a media psychologist. Media psychologists both appear on or in the mass media and research and write about the impact of the media on society. Those who appear on television or radio are those who talk easily and succinctly and explain complex social events and psychological issues in non-jargonized terms.
Loving media exposure notwithstanding, I had adamantly refused to do interviews with tabloid publications like The National Inquirer and Hustler. Whatever the merit of a particular article for which they requested an interview, the context of the publication as a whole was off-putting. Therefore, when a producer from Geraldo called (she had gotten my name from the public affairs department of the American Psychological Association which routinely connects media people with psychologists) I approached the invitation to appear on the show with caution. I had done some local talk shows and my experiences on them had been good. But Geraldo was another matter entirely. He epitomized the tabloid format of contemporary talk shows. First there was Donahue. Then there was Oprah. Then there was Geraldo and Sally, and the platform of talk show taste standards collapsed completely.
So, I had had misgivings about appearing on the show. But I went on anyway. It was network television. It would be a learning experience. It was. But so is falling off a cliff. Looking at the Geraldo tape, I was embarrassed. Forget what I said about these rapist-marrying women and the neurotic lock in which they were embraced. The words were fine. Doing the show, that was the embarrassment! It was clear that I had been caught up in the talk show juggernaut that I later saw trap other "experts" and would see too many times again in the future. Worse, Geraldo's unexpected request to give an impression of these women in 30 seconds put me in the role of shoot-from-the-hip psychologist. I didn't like it and I liked less my attempt to deliver the goods.
It will get better, I reassured myself. And, in fact, there were times over the course of the numerous daily talk shows when the show's tempo or the host's integrity offered me such opportunities. The Montel Williams Show was a prime example. Early in his talk show career when the show originated in Los Angeles, Montel 's shows dealt with such issues as interracial dating, the impact of gangster rap lyrics on society, and parent-child conflicts. Generally these shows were done with a purpose -- to educate not simply titillate. Things got rowdy at times, but Montel never seemed to lose his vision of accomplishing something worthwhile, especially in the arena of race relations.
Unlike Geraldo, Sally or Oprah, Montel Williams let an expert talk in more than sound bites so that delicate and complicated issues could be explored without sacrificing light for heat. Indeed, several times after I appeared on one of his shows dealing with race where I had voiced my support of interracial dating as a way of breaking down racial barriers, people would come up to me in stores and restaurants to thank me for making their lives a little easier. It was such experiences that reinforced my belief that reaching millions of people via the talk show forum may indeed be worth some of the silliness an "expert" occasionally encounters.
But things change. The Montel Williams Show became corrupted by its own modicum of success and its quest for ratings. The day I got a call from one of the show's producer-bookers to come on and referee battles between couples in a boxing ring wearing a striped referee costume, I knew the wind had shifted. Montel had joined the talk show circus in earnest.
Before Montel's Faustian fall from grace, did I really believe that such shows could be reliable forums for imparting psychological wisdom? For a while I did, so I kept doing talk shows. Like other media psychologists, I was like a pigeon in a Skinner box, pecking away on a schedule of partial reinforcement convinced that the next peck, the next show, would be rewarded with the experience of having done something worthwhile.
Then finally, after outings on Oprah and Sally the simple, stupid truth of it all sunk in: Talk shows existed to entertain and exploit the exhibitionism of the walking wounded. If you want to explore your problem, you go to counseling. If you want to exhibit your life, attack and humiliate your spouse or exact revenge for some misdeed, you go on a talk show..
The most exquisite example of this came in a phone call late at night. A woman's voice asked me if I was the doctor she had seen earlier that day on Oprah? I was.
"Would you help me get on Oprah?" she asked. "I need to talk about how I was sexually abused as a girl by my brother. I told my parents. They never would listen. Now, I'm in Seattle, living with a woman, my life is screwed up and I need to get better."
"What about therapy," I suggested.
"No," she replied, "I must go on Oprah."
"Why Oprah, why a talk show," I asked "Surely therapy would be a better place for you to work out your anger and resentment."
"No," she screamed. "My parents have to pay for what they did, for not believing me, for ruining my life. If I went into therapy, only the therapist would know. If I go on Oprah, millions will know. My parents couldn't ignore me then. And their lives would be ruined like mine was."
After that call, I began to turn down most talk show invitations. Most, but not all. Their narcissistic allure still whispered in my ear, albeit more faintly.
Why Are Talk Shows So Popular?
Like cancer cells, talk shows multiply. In the 70s there were three. Now there are 20, and counting. Their appeal to television audiences is obvious. These shows are a source of electronic gossip, of safe scandal and of chances to compare one's own life with those on the screen and breath a superior sigh of relief. If you feel like one of life's ciphers, how uplifting it is to see people make fools of themselves on talk shows.
Talk shows also offer vicarious revenge. If you seethe inside because you have been betrayed or endlessly disappointed by men, how pleasured you are by seeing men try to justify infidelities and get clobbered in a pincer movement by guests, hosts and audiences.
Talk Shows and Women
Like the Soaps, shopping networks and endless women in jeopardy movies of the week, talk shows owe their popularity primarily to women. Women constitute upwards of 70% of the viewing audiences.
Talk shows are relationship shows. Women are about relationships
like men are about sports. Cooperation vs. competition. Feelings
vs. actions. Polar opposites. Gender stereotypes, but telling
nevertheless. Women come on talk shows mostly to discuss betrayals
and victimizations. Women in the audience either attack or embrace.
They attack when the women on stage speak to the weakness to which they
are all heir -- needing a man to feel legitimate and validated and sacrificing
their dignity on the alter of that need. Women in the audience embrace
when the enemy, the male, is on stage, betraying the onstgage women the
way women in the audience feel they have been betrayed.
Talk Shows and Men
Bette Davis once said that old age is no place for sissies. Well, the talk show is no place for men. You wonder why men who won't commit, sleep with their girlfriend's best friend or abuse their wives come on such shows to get predictably garroted. From what I've observed most do it to pacify their women's desire to simply get on one of the shows. These men will perform on cue, say dumb things, reveal dumb attitudes about fidelity or inattention to their partner's needs. They get pummeled but leave the stage unscathed. For them it's a joke. "I hope you'll get off my back now," I heard one young man say to his girlfriend as they left the stage at the end of the show. She had just ripped him apart on stage but now was all warm and cuddly. She was pacified...for the moment.
Men are in the audience but they're mostly recruited by magazine ads and audience brokers. They sometimes ask questions and make pronouncements. But they're out of their medium. Their hearts aren't in it. That's obvious when you sit on stage and watch them squirm when Oprah or Sally or Phil walk past them, "Not me, please don't ask me to speak." Women, on the other hand, line up, stand up, raise their hands, shout "Me, let me speak." This is their chance to take out a few Neanderthal men or viperous women who inhabit every women's nightmare and probably most women's autobiography of woe.
The Tabloid Talk Show Formula
Unless they are actually from Mars or Venus and have never seen these talk shows, never seen the guests behave like Gong Show alumni or the experts pander away their professional prestige to the theatrical demands of the burlesque format, why do they continue to go on them? Because guests and experts alike whisper to themselves, "I can do better." But, they don't. Because they can't. The iron maiden format of the talk show makes sure of that.
To fully understand the well-honed uniformity, the formula of tabloid talk shows, you must understand the elements that comprise that formula. Talk shows occupy two realities. There is the reality of witnessing a talk show on television in the familiar, benign environment of your home. It is a "passive reality". Then there is the "active reality" of actually being a guest or expert confronted by the kaleidoscope of glaring studio lights, perambulating cameras, charismatic hosts, stares of the studio audiences and the mesmerizing fact of being on television. Moreover, the studio is far smaller and more intimate than it appears on television. The sheer psychologically coercive power of the host and the people in the audience and on stage, in such close proximity, is invisible to the home audience and its effects cannot be anticipated, only experienced first hand.
Numerous times, before a show, guests have confidently told me they are sure the show will be a positive experience, even when they have painful topics to discuss. But it is precisely the poor control that guests have over the proceedings (or themselves) that makes the unsophisticated "Look Ma, I'm on television" guests such attractive prey for the talk show. Once on stage, a guest's self restraint evaporates in the hot glare of stage lights.
Media psychologist colleagues have shared with me similar shell-shock after doing talk shows. They rarely have the chance to say what they thought they would say when they agreed to do theshow. The chastening impact of being cut off by the host when one's explanations are too prolonged is jolting. The experts find themselves with two choices: get glib or get ignored. The formula reigns supreme. The formulaic elements deserve analysis.
Calm intellectual discourse is unwelcome to most talk show viewers -- they want action! Emotions and conflict are two of the critical ingredients of the talk show recipe that give it the tang that is so viewer-addictive. On contemporary talk shows, conflict is king! And producers, hosts and studio audiences use the guests to sow the seeds. The daily tumultuous dramas of guests enacting their lives, baring their wounds, divulging the crimes of their hearts and their loins, the predictable unpredictability of these dirty linen flauntings is what viewers find so irresistible.
My talk show experiences makes one thing painfully clear: Most of the guests are drawn from America's abundant population of have nots. They have not high intelligence. They have not high income. They have not high opportunities. They have not any way to snatch the brief celebrity which television confers except to exhibit themselves. They sell their misery like hookers sell their bodies.
Some guests, of course, are more canny, intent on exploiting the exploiters. One woman called after seeing me on a talk show. She told me she had the current disease du jour, a multiple personality disorder. She wanted to go on The Home Show or Geraldo (she had seen me on both) so she could tell her story and maybe get a producer to option her life for a television movie. She had heard I was also a screenwriter. If I would help her get on, she said, she would let me write the screenplay.
Other guests have humbler exploitative goals -- merely to get on a show, even if the have to gild the lily. For one Oprah show was the bookers had combed their guest sources and found four couples who alleged they were struggling with various strains of sexual jealousy. But the couple that got Oprah's attention was a man and woman in their middle 20's. He was an accountant, she a homemaker. She felt jealous all right, but it was not the kind of jealousy that they had promised the booker -- "bikini-clad women at work." The young wife was jealous of his work, period! Bikini-clad women had nothing to do with it.
When this tidbit of truth finally tumbled out of the wife's mouth, Oprah rendered a sublime imitation of Mt. Vesuvius. "This is why you came on the show, to discuss your jealousy over his working long hours to get ahead?" She sputtered with anger and turned to me. "What do you have to say about that, Dr. Fischoff." "About what in particular," I asked, searching for something to focus on. "About anything. Just talk," she hissed. So, I talked while Oprah brooded and paced. The housewife was shocked and hurt. "Why was Oprah so upset?" she asked me when the show was over. "After all, I just wanted to get on Oprah. Doesn't everyone?"
If you take the studio audience out of the picture you take away the talk show spectacle as we know it. The audience provides a tribal impact, people provoking people to say and do things they would ordinarily never say or do unless they were drunk or assured anonymity. The audience is laced with sharpshooters and soapboxers who all too often use a guest to draw themselves into the limelight, to engage, not in dialogue, but in inquisition. The more their questions can make the guest squirm and lose control, the more powerful the audience members feel. If you are a guest, you are a defendant. The audience members are your judge and jury. And they will try to take your head off, for they also sing the executioner's song.
Audiences may not walk in the studio with their fangs bared, but they are soon salivating vampirically. They are harangued or cajoled by a warm-up staff to "Say what's on your mind," "Don't hold back," "You don't like what they're saying, tell them!" When the guests come on stage and climb out on a ledge, the audience is already whipped up -- transformed into a crowd of Manhattan pedestrians, looking skyward, urging the pathetic whacko on the 15th floor window ledge to jump.
As an expert, you sit on stage and feel the negative charges of electricity hurtling out of the audience, enveloping the guests. But your expert status is not a "safe house." On talk shows the audience's opinions is deliberately placed on an even footing with that of the expert. The expert may have the training, the clinical experience or other bona fides to offer an educated opinion about a topic of discussion. But the audience members come armed with their personal experiences, the status-equalizing power of the studio mike and the encouragement of the host to "let it rip." A meeting of the minds it isn't. If you go against the audience's strident opinions, they go against you.
The show was Sally Jessy Raphael. The topic was "Men Who Won't Commit." The audience kept spewing questions at the hapless males on the stage, deriding their commitment phobias. "Immature, immature," yelled women (and some men) in the audience, pointing fingers like Winchester rifles. I jumped in and noted that sometimes women confuse fear of commitment with an unwillingness to commit to a particular women and that, rather than maturity, often it is social conditioning and other less romantic agendas that compel many women to push for a marriage commitment.
Big mistake! The audience fell on me like children smashing a Piñata. I might just as well have accused Mother Teresa of being a transsexual. Sally loved it. Of course. What she didn't love was when one of the "uncommitted" proposed marriage on stage and placed an engagement ring on his girl friend's finger. Sometimes the exploiters get exploited.
You have seen him (or her) on television a 100 times. You know him, nurturing those with righteous, sympathetic causes or tearing asunder the misfits, opportunists and freaks. Phil? You think you know him. Sally? You think you know her. But you don't. Most hosts' sympathies and concerns are all too often mere contrivances to seduce the guest into self-exposure and beguile the television audience. Sympathy bonds freeze during commercial breaks and reanimate when the taping resumes. Caring? There are rare circumstances of on-camera concerns and off-camera follow-ups. But these tender moments are often later publicly exploited by the shows' spin doctors.
And rarely (Oprah is the occasional exception) is the expert treated any differently. For most talk show hosts, when the show ends, so does the existence of experts. I've been on tabloid (Geraldo, Oprah, Sally) and non-tabloid (Sonya Friedman, Larry King) talk shows dozens of times. Except for Montel Williams, a host has never chatted with me either before or after a show. Many of my media psychology colleagues relate similar pre- and post-show invisibility.
The Talk Show Expert
Who are the "experts? They are usually veterans, like myself, psychologists or, more often, non-Ph.D. psychotherapists, who do (or did) the talk show circuit regularly and either like being on television or have a book to sell or a private practice to nurture. Many such veterans offer workshops to other psychologists who want to learn how to get on television. They even get together to trade war stories and get feedback on a recent "performance."
In theory, during a given show such experts could offer sound advice on the show's general topic. They could even offer useful information to the guests. But, in practice this is not what generally happens. The "formula" gets in the way. Some therapist occasionally do mis-guided on-air counseling or mediation between warring guests. But, that's equivalent of singing to a deaf man. Guests are not there to humble themselves and gain therapeutic insight. Not in front of 10 million people. They are there to seek validation or, like the expert, just get some TV exposure.
So, in actuality, what function do psychological experts serve? In part, to give the talk show a frisson of legitimacy. But in the main, experts are the laugh track to help audiences identify whom to blame, whom to side with, and who "just doesn't get it." That may not be why the experts think they're there. But that's why they're there.
Some of these experts will say publicly that, on balance, talk shows are worthwhile, that they help the viewing public, if not the guests. But for most experts I know, the only "on balance" they are privately thinking about involves how successful they are at self-promotion. The dirty little secret most media psychologists know is that, with rare exceptions, if a psychologist truly wants to educate the public, the last place to do it is on a contemporary tabloid talk show.
Talk show tradition is like a limbo bar. The lower it goes, the lower people who follow must go to play the game successfully. Guests will say the most intimate things precisely because they have watched others do it before them. If guests discuss their sex lives on talk shows other guests will do the same. If guests attack their spouses on talk shows, other guests will do the same. And if guests admit to incest on talk shows, incredibly, other guests will go on to do the same. Like some revivalist tent show, once guests have fallen to the ground, touched by the spirit, speaking in tongues, others guests will follow, tongues wagging, shame and privacy cast out of the body.
With very few exceptions, the guest bookers must be con artists and ambulance chasers. They get the names and phone numbers of prospective guests from a variety of sources: viewers who call in response to a theme ("If you have had a boyfriend betray you with your best friend, call us. You may be a guest on an upcoming Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, et al); those who read an ad for prospective guests in the classified section of local newspapers; those who list themselves in publications devoted to people who advertise their peculiar specialty or kink solely for talk show engagements; or, they call psychotherapists or other personal service specialists and ask them to bring their patients on as guests for particular theme shows. For ethical reasons respectable therapists refuse such requests, but the requests keep coming nonetheless.
The bookers need social misfits to feed the beast. They must promise the misfit guest a good time (limos, hotels, a night on the town) or a good forum for their personal advocacy ("obese women deserving love," "transvestites deserving women who understand them"). But, the guests are offered no warnings that the electrified climate of the talk show set will loosen their tongues and obliterate their self-protective sensibilities. There are no warnings about surprise guests, as a grandmother discovered on one Montel Williams show on which I was the expert. Thinking she was on stage only to discuss her misgivings about racially mixed marriages, this grandmother was totally blind-sided when the mulatto grandchild she had refused to either see or acknowledge was brought on stage and placed in her arms. She had no choice but to submit or else be seen as the racist Ice Queen of the century. The gimmick played well to the audience but the on-stage reunion had little to do with grandmother's off-stage fury about being set up. The staff of the show listened to her tirade with deaf ears and glazed eyes.
As a psychologist or psychotherapist, you are there to feed the beast as well. When a booker calls, he or she needs to determine if you can talk without resorting to cryptic psychojargon and if your point of view is compatible with the show's topical focus. A booker once called me to come on the show to discuss the pain of recovery of repressed memories of sexual abuse. I told her I was unconvinced of the legitimacy of most of so-called recovered memories. She thought for a minute, said that wasn't the point of view needed for this particular show but they were planning another show on "the false memory syndrome," and she would keep me in mind for that. The sands of principle shift widely on talk shows.
The less experienced you are as an expert, the easier it is to be misled by bookers about the Hellzapoppin atmosphere of the show. If you tell them that you don't want to be part of a circus, that you need to be able to seriously explore the topic, they tell you they agree and that their show is different. But if you are cautious, don't immediately say yes, watch the show before deciding, most of the time you realize you have been lied to. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out why. Their show is a circus because circuses get ratings. The week after Jenny Jones got the publicity for the murder of a homosexual guest by a homophobic guest, her ratings jumped 16%.
The Talk Show Fallout
Do guests go on, do their strip show and walk off into the sunlight? Some apparently do. According to published research few guests will admit to being devastated by an appearance unless it's the first round in a pain and suffering suit. Montel Williams encountered that surprise after he blind-sided (yet) another reluctant guest with the revelation that her boyfriend had been sleeping with her sister. She subsequently sued the show for pain and suffering. I was contacted by her attorney to review the videotape of that show. I was asked to judge whether or not the women did indeed seem caught off guard and traumatized by the revelation of her sister's confession. I was also asked to prepare for possible expert testimony should the case go to trial regarding procedures followed by talk shows in such matters as springing cruel surprises on guests. The women subsequently collected an undisclosed sum in an out of court settlement
There are less extreme instances, of course, but, even then, such guests' benign public admissions may be misleading. After one Sally show I did focusing on "women with bad reputations," I uncomfortably shared an airport limo with one of the guests. She had just been shredded by the audience and the host. Nor did my on-air comments validate her self-abusive life style. Incredibly, she insisted the experience was wonderful. "I was on Sally," she gushed. Denial insulates one from a lot of regret and humiliation.
Denial insulates, that is, unless your parents saw you on Geraldo and heard -- for the first time -- that the husband you brought home was the man who raped you on your second date. Then, things don't go so well. Or, unless your son saw you on Sally and learned that you habitually go to neighboring towns on the weekends, end up in bars doing stripteases and go home with strangers. Quickly such guests learn that the disguise they wore on the show didn't help much and that they paid a big price for their brief stab at celebrity.
There is an unsettling issue about the people who volunteer as guests on such shows. One could quite legitimately say if the guests want to go on, let them. If they get burned, that's the price their choice exacted. No one held a gun to their heads.
While that is true, it is equally true that people don't always have the sophistication to make the right choices or fully grasp the long-term consequences of their decisions. I would argue that until people fully understand the risks of parading their life-flaws for a few moments of cheap celebrity, until they understand that the active reality of a TV talk show exerts more necromancy than they can possibly grasp sitting at home wishing for a chance to get on "Geraldo," they are far less responsible for the degrading talk show spectacle than are the savvy producers of such shows.
Circus freak shows are no longer the cruel attraction they once were. As a society we have become more sensitive to the feelings of the "freaks" and to the dehumanizing stigma the term implies. We have also come to roundly condemn the promoters who exploited such "freaks" for mere profit. Perhaps guests on these so-called television freak shows, guests so easy to disdain, should be accorded the same compassion and the show's producers the same condemnation. If I had understood this earlier in my talk show career, I would have dropped it sooner.
Will television talk shows run their course? Will producers be brought to their senses and pull back from the class warfare of the haves exploiting the have not exhibitionists for the amusement of the voyeuristic audiences? Not until our culture stops its free fall from civility and not until shame and privacy reassert themselves in the pantheon of social values. The "I am victim, hear me whine" chorus has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of chanters to parade across television screens and inspire head-shaking fascination in viewers.
Finally, what did I ultimately learn that made me a talk show psychologist drop out? In time, I learned that I could exercise more control over what I said instead of obligingly feeding the beast. But controlling my presentation was just not enough. My presence still legitimized the circus. In the end, there was no way I could further delude myself into believing I was serving any reliable informative function for talk show guests or audiences. The forces at work are simply too powerful. The talk show circus will undoubtedly continue, but with one less expert clown.
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