The Devil and Jenny Jones

The much-maligned talk show host is guilty of tackiness and insensitivity, but not of murder.

By David Futrelle

Published November 13, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

once upon a time, not so long ago, a movie ruined my life—a miserably
depressing flick titled "Enemies: A
Love Story"
, which told the tale of a morally challenged Holocaust
survivor with an excess of wives. Perhaps you saw it; perhaps you even
enjoyed it. I wish the movie had never entered my life.

You see, I attended the movie with a female, er, friend — though the
exact parameters of our relationship were a matter of some dispute. I was
in love with her — or perhaps simply obsessed. She was not in love with
me. We attended the film at a rather fragile point in our peculiar
friendship, both of us in lousy moods. We left the theater feeling worse
than ever. Shortly afterwards, we got into an argument, and, after leaving
a final angry message on my answering machine the next day, she stopped
talking to me altogether. I immediately plunged into a state of despair,
from which it took nearly a year to recover.

What's gotten me thinking about this rather sorry episode from my past is
the verdict yesterday in what has been called the "Talk Show Murder Case."
The verdict, I thought, was a sensible enough one: the jury convicted
Jonathan Schmitz of second-degree murder in the shotgun death of Scott
Amedure — who a few days before the killing had revealed his "secret
crush" on Schmitz at a taping of "The Jenny Jones Show." The jury
took into consideration Schmitz' less-than-stable "state of mind" at the
time of the killing — but they rejected his lawyer's claims that Jenny
was the real culprit in the murder.

But the case is far from over, and poor Ms. Jones is not yet off the hook.
The family of the victim plans to pursue a $25 million lawsuit against the
show itself, its perpetually perky host, and Telepicture Productions, the
division of Warner Brothers responsible for producing the show. (In one of
those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction coincidences that seem to surround
high-profile cases, the family has decided to hire Jack Kevorkian's lawyer,
Geoffrey Fieger, to represent them.)

I understand their pain (if not their choice of legal counsel). And they
are probably right to conclude that their son would still be alive had it
not been for Jenny Jones. Does that make her liable in his death? No more
so than Paul Mazursky, the director of "Enemies," is responsible for what
happened to me after viewing his film. Yes, the Jenny Jones show left Schmitz angry and upset — as, presumably, did
the sexually explicit notes Amadure apparently left on Schmitz's doorstep.
But the Jones show is not responsible for his extreme, violent reaction; and his anger hardly gave him license to kill.

The misery I felt after the "Enemies" incident was very real. But I
never considered suing anyone over it. Besides, who could I sue? Mazursky,
for directing such a misery-inducing film? The estate of the late Isaac
Bashevis Singer, since he wrote the book on which the screenplay was based?
Ron Silver, for his convincing portrayal of the morally-challenged
polygamist Herman? Roger Ebert, for
the film?

Perhaps one of the reasons I didn't consider (and couldn't have even
possibly conceived of) suing was that the film was, by all accounts, a very
good one — ably directed, with a fine cast, and based on a book by a
Nobel prize winner. "The Jenny Jones Show," by comparison, is an
embarrassing piece of schlock — one of the tawdriest of the daytime
talk shows that everyone (as they say) loves to hate. It's sordid; it's
despicable; it's exploitative. Smug hipsters can sneer at the
ludicrous clips from the show shown nightly on cable's Talk Soup, while
cultural conservatives can profess to be shocked, shocked, by it all. I
can't even bring myself to watch it — well, to watch it more than two
or three times a week.

When we look upon Art, we do so with awe — even if its subject matter
is as squalid as anything on "Geraldo" or "Jenny Jones."
Sophocles wrote about incest; Shakespeare wrote about lust, jealousy,
murder — much of it taking place within some highly dysfunctional
families. But when cultural critics attempt to ban such high art, they're
ridiculed as hopeless boors and yahoos. (You may recall the reaction,
several years back, when a Penn State professor accused a Goya painting of
"harassing" her.)

When critics take on movie violence, rap music and TV talk shows, by
contrast, even the most liberal-minded tend to sniff and shuffle and mumble
that they "see the problem" — even if, they sometimes go on to say,
"censorship isn't the answer."

It's similar when the issue is "influence." When serial killer Ted Bundy
claimed to have been motivated to murder by the evils of pornography (a
pretty transparent attempt to get himself off the hook for his own vicious
deeds), anti-porn activists ate it up. But when well-armed "patriots" claim
simply to be acting out the Original Intent of the U.S. Constitution, no
one suggests banning that pernicious document — which, I hear, you can
even find freely
on the Internet.

Oddly enough, most people today up in arms about the evil powers of popular
culture claim to be immune to these powers themselves. And even the most
hardened moralist is likely to overlook a little violence here and there if
the message of a particular piece of culture is to his or her liking. In
his mammoth "Book of Virtues," for example, William Bennett includes
selections from Shakespeare's "Henry V" and Tennyson's "Charge of the Light
Brigade" — fine literature, to be sure, but both of them as violent as
anything you'll find on a typical rap CD. And you're as unlikely to hear a
Republican criticize the violent movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger as you are
likely to hear a Democrat say a good thing about Rush Limbaugh.

Despite all of the talk about media "responsibility," the assault on
popular culture is simply another way of avoiding the real issues. To blame
words or images for problems that are clearly social in origin is the
ultimate kind of irresponsibility. As comic book publisher William Gaines
told a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the '50s,
"Delinquency is the product of the real environment in which the child
lives and not of the fiction he reads." It's telling that we have to turn
to Gaines, the founder and publisher of Mad Magazine, to inject a
little sanity into a debate that long ago ceased to make any sense at all.

David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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