Is the fix in on "American Idol"?

Allegations surface that support from Howard Stern and ballot stuffing from Indian call centers are responsible for the improbable staying power of "Idol" contestant Sanjaya Malakar.

Published March 26, 2007 5:30PM (EDT)

"American Idol" might not exactly qualify as art, but it sure does a good job of imitating life. In a world of hanging chads and voting machines, it was only a matter of time before the television juggernaut endured its first voting manipulation controversy. There are rumblings that this season's edition of "American Idol" is being gamed in favor of 16-year-old contestant Sanjaya Malakar. No one is saying the show's producers are using the butcher's thumb in favor of the modestly talented Malakar (watch him perform here) -- in fact, he's received only lukewarm praise from Randy, Paula and Simon -- but the idea has been floated that a subversive campaign led by Howard Stern and block voting from Indian call centers are reasons why this less than stellar contestant has been able to keep making the cut.

First, Stern. Shortly before last week's episode aired, satellite radio shock jock Howard Stern announced to his more than 6 million listeners that Sanjaya was his contestant of choice and urged them to vote -- not because he thinks the resident of Federal Way, Wash., is any great shakes, but for exactly the opposite reason. Stern made the announcement alongside Dave Della Terza, founder of the Vote for the Worst Web site, which has the stated mission of trying to subvert "Idol" by drumming up votes for the show's worst contestants. Hard to make a causal claim here, but lo and behold, despite yet another affably amateurish performance, Malakar again was left standing at the end of Wednesday's show.

If that were the end to this story it would be weird enough, but things took an even stranger twist when media and entertainment blogs started claiming that Malakar's staying power was the result of blocks of votes coming from Indian call-center employees (Malakar's father is Bengali).

What sparked the call-center allegations? Apparently nothing more than an almost month-old posting on the Uber Desi Indian culture blog that gave the phone number to call and vote for Malakar as well as a disclaimer reminding people they could vote multiple times. Add in the fact that some of the "Idol" votes are processed by call centers in India, and voilà!, you have yourself a conspiracy theory -- one that Uber Desi quickly, and perhaps rightly, denounced as logistically ridiculous and tinged with a bit of racism. "What I do care about is the unproven assertion that those devious, foreign call centers are responsible for yet another activity which harms 'real Americans,'" writes Uber Desi blogger Karthik. "The nefariousness we sense -- unlike the inconsequential outcome of a television show -- has real and painful repercussions, for Sanjaya and everyone who looks like or allegedly votes for him."

Lost in the hubbub is the possibility that, hey, maybe people just like voting for an underdog. But what do you think about this latest bout of "Idol" funny business? Has Malakar's run on the show been unjustly deserved? Do you give any credence to the ballot-stuffing claims? And where does Malakar rank among the worst "Idol" contestants of all time? As far as I'm concerned, he beats the stuffing out of William Hung.

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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