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Reality of death brushes reality

PEOPLE DIE IN TERRIBLE, tragic, inexplicable ways every day. But when a guy commits suicide after appearing in a “reality” TV show, someone should pause and consider why.

That guy was Najai Turpin, a 23-year-old Philadelphia resident featured in NBC’s upcoming boxing-elimination show “The Contender.” Turpin shot himself last week, and before the body was cold producer Mark Burnett insisted the show would go on and not a frame would be changed.

Five years ago, the Chicken Littles among us were warning this would happen, that it was only a matter of time before somebody died in connection with one of these programs. It was “Network” come to life, we said, and turning people into rats in a maze for entertainment purposes would inevitably lead to dire consequences.

Turpin didn’t die while making the show. He wasn’t beaten to death in the ring. Maybe he was disturbed, maybe a background check didn’t detect signs that he was suicidal, maybe he would have done this anyway, without becoming a “Contender.”

Maybe, but I have my doubts, just as I doubt this latest black eye on the unscripted genre will yield any long-term changes, or that Burnett’s image will be stained by his knee-jerk “the show must go on” (must it? really?) response.

Let’s face it, we’re all a little numb these days. A few years ago such news would have shocked people. Now it’s ho-hum, oh well, bring on the next circus attraction, complete with night-vision lenses if it’s Paris Hilton.

Other networks won’t criticize NBC for announcing so quickly its plans to proceed with the broadcast, understanding that “There but for the grace of God go I.” Indeed, one can only imagine how much hotter the firestorm would blaze if the network in question was Fox and the producer was someone who didn’t have a “Survivor”/”The Apprentice” pedigree — the sort of success that tends to make many media outlets kowtow.

One reality producer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says at the very least there was negligence in the casting process — either in conducting an insufficient background and psychological check or in overlooking red flags.

We can debate that until we’re all blue in the face and, I’m sad to say, it won’t change a thing. We’ve come too far for the reality of death to spell the death of reality, or even to cause a major hiccup.

All the same, if Burnett wanted to show compassion toward Turpin’s family, he’d have kept quiet for a few days — if nothing else creating the impression that the producers bothered to study how they depict Turpin before plowing ahead.

As for his collaborators at NBC and DreamWorks, suddenly the money they squandered making “Father of the Pride” doesn’t look quite as bad. Granted, the animated show represented a high-profile failure, but at least they could unreservedly say, “No one was harmed in the making of this program.”

* * *

The Polarization Express: The controversy-packed exits of Dan Rather from “The CBS Evening News” and CNN exec Eason Jordan have Internet bloggers and talkradio hosts swaggering over their perceived ability to poke holes in the “mainstream media.”

Despite a few big-game pelts, however, their true impact has been subtler — dragging the so-called mainstream’s discourse to newfound levels of shrillness ensuring that everyone rides the Polarization Express.

In that sense, the blogosphere’s impact echoes what the tabloids have done to news reporting — popularizing coverage of the likes of O.J. Simpson, Gary Condit and Michael Jackson until everyone has sunk ankle-deep into the muck.

Similarly, because emitting anything less than a full-throated roar risks being drowned out by the shouting, established opinion venues have adopted a more strident tone. Take the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which recently summed up Michael Moore’s lack of a best-picture Oscar nomination for “Fahrenheit 9/11” by saying, in essence, “Neener, neener, neener.”

Consider, too, the New York Times’ twin towers of Bush bashing, culture columnist Frank Rich and op-ed diva Maureen Dowd. Loosely translated, his weekly rant boils down to, “I saw a movie (or TV show), which reminds me how much I hate Bush,” whereas her Pulitzer Prize-winning credentials have degenerated into, “The Bush administration is evil, which reminds me of a movie (or TV show) I saw.”

Faced with this temptation to demonize competing viewpoints, a reasonable man might suggest it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable, but frankly, that kind of goody-two-shoes posture is no way to get invited back to “Hannity and Colmes.”

So anyone who disagrees with me can rot in Hell, right between the flaming pundit chairs reserved for Ann Coulter and James Carville. With an attitude like that, I expect my cell phone to begin ringing any second now.

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