Comment Of The Day: “Open Forum,” Reality Show Thread

When I read  A.M. Golden’s Comment of the Day in yesterday’s Open Forum, I realized how long it has been since I wrote anything about TV reality shows, truly a center of popular culture ethics rot for decades now.  I have been remiss indeed. I had written about many of these monsters in the past, from “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” to “The Bachelor” and the fat-to-fit shows, and the even more horrible “let’s watch these miserable D-list celebrities debase themselves on camera so we can feel superior” shows starring attention addicts like Anna Nicole Smith, Scott Baio, the Kardashians and Danny Bonaduce. 

I used to write a lot about “American Idol” when Simon Cowell was humiliating deluded contestants who shouldn’t have been allowed to sing in the shower, much less on national television. Criticizing these shows was almost too easy, like shooting celebrity fish in a barrel. I got sick of it, frankly.

A.M. did me a favor by flagging the return of two such shows. As he points out, they really are cruel and exploitative. Reality shows have coarsened our tastes and dulled our ethics alarms. Send them to Hell.

Here is A.M. Golden’s Comment of the Day on two re-booting reality shows. At the end, he asks, “Agree? Disagree?”

I could not agree more.

Two reality shows from the past are re-emerging far too soon with reboots.

The first is “The Biggest Loser”, a weight-loss game show that pushed overweight contestants to the limit with ridiculous and humiliating challenges, caused physical injuries that persist years later and pushed healthy eating on the air while pressuring the players to reduce their intake to unhealthy levels in order to show dramatic weight loss that was presented as being the result of one week’s work when it was often longer.

The reboot promises a more healthy environment. I’m not betting on it. Realistic weight loss is not exciting and boring does not bring in advertising dollars.

Because in any television show, it’s always about the dollars. Continue reading

An Ethics Alarms Audit: Who Or What Is At Fault For The Rise Of Donald Trump?

I have intentionally avoided most of the many articles that have used the unsettling rise of Donald Trump as a Presidential contender to attack their favorite targets—talk radio, Republicans, Obama, the Tea Party, the “elites,” the news media, reality TV…it’s a long list. One of the few I did read was this one, by Peggy Noonan. Its main thesis:

“The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment—another word for the protected—nothing, no particular loyalty, no old allegiance. Mr. Trump came from that…What marks this political moment, in Europe and the U.S., is the rise of the unprotected. It is the rise of people who don’t have all that much against those who’ve been given many blessings and seem to believe they have them not because they’re fortunate but because they’re better….This is a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens. And a country really can’t continue this way.”

Yup. That’s how populist uprisings always start, and Noonan properly diagnosed this one. Still, it was neither pre-ordained nor necessary that the individual such a movement would unite around had to be such a dangerous, unstable and unworthy one, or that the citizens supporting him would display such complete absence of logic and responsibility.

Reading the debates between Trump supporters and detractors on various websites, I am reminded of the classic “Simpsons” episode where Springfield split into two warring factions, the Mensa group, and the anti-Mensa group. The latter was characterized by angry stupidity, and if a member made a logical and coherent argument against the astute and educated opposition, he would be instantly ejected with the cry, “You’re one of them!”

Herman Kahn, the futurist, used to say that even the best plans, organizations, and systems could be unsettled by “the 2% contingency of bad management or bad luck.” The United States has been very fortunate in its approximately 250 years’ experiment. Bismarck famously said that “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America,” and at times it has seemed that way. When the nation’s management failed, the U.S. has been astoundingly lucky. When it has been unlucky, brilliant leaders have been on hand to manage the problem. The Trump phenomenon illustrates the fact of existence that luck eventually runs out: so far, bad luck and bad management have joined forces to produce the threat of a Donald Trump presidency.

There are many people, groups and institutions responsible for Trump getting this far, and it is dishonest, incompetent and unfair to blame one without identifying the rest. Each was arguably essential to the chaotic mix, and thus nothing and no one deserves to be cited as “the” cause.

Here, in rough but not definitive particular order, are the main miscreants. I’ve limited myself to eleven, but the list could easily be longer.
Continue reading

The Crime That Can’t Be Charged: Humiliation And Harm For Money

I hate this topic with a passion. It has come up often: the exploitation of desperate attention-addicts in celebrity reality shows, dwarf-tossing, the ancient pastime of paying geeks and the deformed to present themselves for public ridicule and dehumanizing treatment, and more. The problem is that the phenomenon is indistinguishable from other, societally-approved examples of paying individuals to harm themselves or be humiliated for our entertainment. Pro football, of course, harms more human beings in one game than all the dwarf-tossing since the beginning of time. Child actors are harmed for money, and often they don’t even get the proceeds, or give meaningful consent.

Every example I can imagine feeds directly into the vile Rationalization #22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.” The problem is that all of those worse things are legal, and likely to remain so. Yes, there are worse things than paying a drunk to dance like fool in exchange for a few dollars to buy his next drink, like paying young men millions of dollars to pound their brains into jelly. That’s our national pastime!

And yet—how can a society tolerate this? From the AP...

LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) — Police in New Jersey say no charges will be filed after a stranger paid a homeless man $5 to pour coffee on himself twice. Police say that’s because Ronald Leggatt consented even though he was embarrassed. The 65-year-old tells the Asbury Park Press he let a stranger videotape him pouring coffee on his head on Monday in Lakewood because he needed the money….

I wish I had a solution. I’d like to know the name of the scum who did this, but then what? Post his name for vigilante justice? I would argue that there is no valid consent when an individual agrees under duress and desperation, but then what is society saying—that a man can’t exchange a humiliating act for money he desperately needs? Continue reading

Guest Post: “Can We At Least Agree On This?”

by

Paul Petersen, guest blogger

paulpetersenjpg-7e3983c6cd2404d1

[This is Paul Petersen’s second guest blogger appearance on Ethics Alarms. Based on his own experiences as a child actor on “The Donna Reed Show” and what he observed in the treatment of his less fortunate colleagues in the field, Paul  created the profession of child performer advocate and activist, educating the public and assisting individual  performers. (His Facebook friend list is a Who’s Who of former child actors.) Although Paul is officially retired, he continues to speak out about conditions, legal and otherwise, that place child performers in financial, physical, and social peril. The number of child stars, current or grown, who are indebted to him and his organization A Minor Consideration are beyond counting. A true Ethics Hero, his work and statements have been referenced here many times.–Jack]

Can we at least agree on this? Children are a special class of humankind. They are uniquely unformed, utterly dependent, and slaves to the adults who brought them into this world and the society into which they were born.

We all know how children are created, right? They did not ask for this. They are, in a word, innocent. Biologically mature adults are responsible. Of that there is no doubt. Children are a special charge. The rules, for kids, are different…or at least they used to be.

When did they become sexual objects? Since when are they merely background players, mere props? Who decreed that a child immersed in a working environment in which all the contributory adults are compensated for their labor, could somehow NOT be themselves working? Continue reading

Seven Ethics Observations On The Josh Duggar Child Molestation Revelations

19 kids

Yes, this is an Ethics Train Wreck.

First, some background:

“19 Kids and Counting” is another reality show featuring the exploitation of children for their parents fame and profit broadcast by the  cable channel TLC, the same shameless bunch that bought us “Jon and Kate Plus 8” and the trashy Honey Boo-Boo Bunch.It began as “17 Kids and Counting,” became “18 Kids and Counting,” and but for this emerging fiasco, might have kept adding numbers, and little unpaid performers,  ad infinitum.  The show featured the godly, conservative, fertile Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their nine girls and ten boys, all of whose names begin with the letter “J.” Since the show began, three of the children have been married and several grandchildren have been born. The series began on September 29, 2008.  February 17, 2015 marked Season 10.

In response to emerging reports that oldest son Dugger son Josh, now 27, was once accused of molesting five underage girls as a teen, Josh Duggar, his wife Anna, and his parents Jim Bob and Michelle jointly explained the circumstances, which had not been revealed outside the family until now. “Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends,” Josh said  in a statement. “I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation. We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”

Josh then resigned from his position at the Family Research Council.

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar had this to say about their son:

“Back 12 years ago our family went through one of the most difficult times of our lives. When Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes, and we were shocked. We had tried to teach him right from wrong. That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before. Even though we would never choose to go through something so terrible, each one of our family members drew closer to God. We pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family. We have challenges and struggles every day. It is one of the reasons we treasure our faith so much because God’s kindness and goodness and forgiveness are extended to us – even though we are so undeserving. We hope somehow the story of our journey – the good times and the difficult times – cause you to see the kindness of God and learn that He can bring you through anything.”

TLC cancelled the show. It said, on its Facebook page,

“Effective immediately, TLC has pulled all episodes of 19 Kids and Counting currently from the air. We are deeply saddened and troubled by this heartbreaking situation, and our thoughts and prayers are with the family and victims at this difficult time”

Then GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee issued his own Facebook statement in support of Josh and the family:

“Janet and I want to affirm our support for the Duggar family. Josh’s actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, ‘inexcusable,’ but that doesn’t mean ‘unforgivable.’ He and his family dealt with it and were honest and open about it with the victims and the authorities. No purpose whatsoever is served by those who are now trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalizing the story. Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things. The reason that the law protects disclosure of many actions on the part of a minor is that the society has traditionally understood something that today’s blood-thirsty media does not understand—that being a minor means that one’s judgement is not mature. No one needs to defend Josh’s actions as a teenager, but the fact that he confessed his sins to those he harmed, sought help, and has gone forward to live a responsible and circumspect life as an adult is testament to his family’s authenticity and humility. Those who have enjoyed revealing this long ago sins in order to discredit the Duggar family have actually revealed their own insensitive bloodthirst, for there was no consideration of the fact that the victims wanted this to be left in the past and ultimately a judge had the information on file destroyed—not to protect Josh, but the innocent victims. Janet and I love Jim Bob and Michelle and their entire family. They are no more perfect a family than any family, but their Christian witness is not marred in our eyes because following Christ is not a declaration of our perfection, but of HIS perfection. It is precisely because we are all sinners that we need His grace and His forgiveness. We have been blessed to receive God’s love and we would do no less than to extend our love and support for our friends. In fact, it is such times as this, when real friends show up and stand up. Today, Janet and I want to show up and stand up for our friends. Let others run from them. We will run to them with our support.”

Observations: Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Three Breasted Ethics”

Alexander Cheezem contributed an informative and well-argued comment challenging my ethical conclusions in the case of “Jasmine Tridevil,” who supposedly had a surgically constructed third breast attached between her two natural ones in an effort to become a reality TV star. Her story turned out to be a scam, but the ethical analysis is still worthy of consideration. Ethics Alarms doesn’t have many medical ethics dilemmas to ponder, and it is a fascinating area. As I considered  Jasmine’s titillation, I suspected it might be a hoax, but from the standpoint of honing ethics alarms, it doesn’t matter. I’m kind of relieved, frankly. Continue reading

Three Breasted Ethics

Three_breasted_woman

UPDATE: Snopes, the urban legend and hoax website, now thinks that this is a scam. As I noted in the post, that would not be a surprise and in fact would be a relief. In such cases, I suggest that the post be read as a hypothetical, since the ethics issues raised by the three-breasted woman remain interesting, even if the story itself turns out to be fiction.

A 21-year-old woman being identified with the alias Jasmine Tridevil ( don’t over-think it) says she paid $20,000 to a plastic surgeon to  give her a realistic third breast. She wants to  become a TV reality show star. Jasmine has hired a camera crew to follow her around Tampa, Florida, documenting the challenges she faces as a three-breasted woman.

I know what you are thinking.

I HOPE this is a hoax.

“Jasmine” was rejected by more than 50 doctors who believed they would be violating professional ethical codes. Scot Glasberg, president-elect of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, condemned the surgery as ‘worse than unethical’ and ‘harmful to society’. ‘This violates every ethical principle not just in surgery but in medicine as well. We look to enhance the norm. This is not the norm. Nothing speaks louder than the fact that the surgeon required the patient to sign a non-disclosure form.” Continue reading

The Saga of Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt: Life in a Culture That Values Lies

Post-surgery Montag, trying to stay famous

If you have taste, a job, and a brain, or don’t read a lot of “Us” and “People” in doctors’ offices, you may never have heard of Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag. They were stars of the once popular TV reality show “The Hills,” and despite being two vacuous and shallow individuals of minimal common sense, talent or education, they presumed that they could ride the “famous for being famous” gravy train in celebrity-and-media obsessed America indefinitely. They couldn’t.

The Daily Beast features a horrifying interview with the pair, which is worth reading for its ethics lessons on several levels. For one thing, the degree to which the culture of dishonesty has progressed in America  surprises even me. Allowing yourself to be presented to the public as a completely manufactured personality in exchange for fame and fortune has always been part of the celebrity experience, but the reality show phenomenon has removed it from everything else—now the lie is all there is. And there are thousands upon thousands of attractive, young dimwits who actually aspire to such ersatz enshrinement in the culture as their life’s pursuit. Paris Hilton and the Kardashian sisters are these deluded individuals’ goddesses, despite the fact that 1) there are not 500 IQ points among the four of them and 2) they all have the benefit of rich trust funds to fall back on, so their jaunts as pop culture comets are more like diversions than careers, though profitable ones. Continue reading

Consenting To Be Beaten

Bought and paid for.

Ethics Alarms has frequently used the analogy of a drunk paid by cruel bar patrons to dance for their entertainment as an example of how using money to persuade a desperate, impaired or foolish individual to allow himself to endure humiliation or harm is still unethical and cruel, despite the supposed “consent” of the victim. PETA’s attempt to pay Nadya Suleman, a.k.a. “Octomom” was recently cited in this context in the post about painting homes as billboards. Now, from St. Petersburg, Florida comes an even more horrible example. Shefights.net, a locally operated website that sells videos (for up to $900) of scantily clad or semi-nude women beating up men, has been paying homeless men, drug addicts and street alcoholics $50 for submitting to  12-minute videotaped beatings by attractive females. Continue reading

GlaxonSmithKline Inspires a Fun Game For Your Holiday Party: “Forcast That Ethics Scandal!”

Almost all ethics scandals and examples of outrageous unethical conduct are thoroughly predictable, whether they involve individual, organizations or institutions. The most obvious proof of this is in politics. Once we consider past patterns, current conditions, institutional habits and what we know about human nature, the question when a new political party takes over isn’t whether there will be instances of bribery, influence peddling, self-enrichment, and conflict of interest, but only which elected leaders will be caught at it. Sometimes even that part is easy: everyone should have been able to guess, long before they occurred, that Tom DeLay’s ethics-free philosophy of politics as warfare would lead him to commit serious misdeeds, just as the odds against former Florida Rep. Alan Grayson running a fair or civil campaign for re-election were prohibitively high. Similarly, sports scandals can usually be seen coming a long way off. Once New England Patriots coach Bill Belichik was caught making surreptitious videos of his team’s opponents’ practices, it was easy to guess that he wasn’t the only one, and that since both he and his team were so successful, it would be only a matter of time before a similar incident came to light. And it did, last week.

As I look through various Ethics Alarms posts, it is striking how many of them could have been written in advance, in fill-in-the-blank format. All you need to do is identify an industry with a history of ethics problems, a weak ethics culture, a trusting, under-informed audience, the potential for increased profit, power or influence, and a large population of corruptible, lazy, incompetent, venal, ambitious or cowardly allies. I’m sure a computer program could be developed, but for this holiday season, why not forecast next year’s ethics scandals as a party game? Challenge your guests: Which TV reality show will be shown to have completely manipulated “reality”? Which revered sports figure will be disgraced in a sex or drug scandal? Which Wall Street firm will be caught violating the “sacred principles” posted on its website? Which school will suspend or expel a student for violating the letter of an overly broad and horribly-written rule without actually doing anything wrong? Which universally accepted scientific research will turn out to be the result of manipulated data? Which embarrassments of the Obama Administration will only be reported by Fox News, and which outrages committed by Republicans will the same network ignore?

And, of course, where will TSA employees put their hands next?

This occurred to me as I read about the recent Big Pharma-manipulating-medical-practice scandal, involving drug giant GlaxonSmithKline, while slapping my forehead and shouting, “Of course! This was the logical next step!” Continue reading