Much has been made of recent lapses in truthfulness, ranging from James Frey’s discredited memoir to journalistic fabrications to scandalous allegations regarding slugger Barry Bonds’ steroid use. Amid the furor, however, few acknowledge the public’s and the media’s complicity in being misled so long as they’re entertained.
Nowhere is this truer than in so-called reality television, where manipulation and distortion occur with regularity, as Time documented in a recent piece titled “How Reality TV Fakes It.” Such an expose directed at the political realm would have triggered debate, but the revelation that reality isn’t real was such a non-event the story passed without so much as a collective yawn.
In fact, the public has grown inured to being lied to by producers, ballplayers, politicians. Hell, people increasingly lie to themselves, dismissing any information that conflicts with their worldview. And they have no shortage of media outlets happy to exploit that trend.
Reality TV’s latest sleight of hand involves cabler FX’s “Black.White.,” a series that ostensibly delves into the thorny issue of race by using elaborate makeup that allows two families — one white, one black — to sample walking in each other’s shoes.
Even before the premiere, little cracks began to emerge in the show’s veneer of authenticity. The Los Angeles Times reported the white couple isn’t actually married, and that events such as an all-black poetry group were specifically staged for use in the show. Variety listed the acting credits of Bruno Marcotulli — the white patriarch and, as presented, the show’s most polarizing figure — whose resume includes guest stints on “JAG” and “MacGyver.”
So was there any backlash from “Black.White.’s” problems with “truthiness,” the catchphrase coined by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert? Hardly. Not only did the premiere register boffo ratings of 4 million viewers, but the lion’s share of critics ignored these tidbits, obligingly referring to Marcotulli as a “teacher” and Carmen Wurgel as his wife.
The simple explanation, of course, is that people don’t care. Sure, confronted with a lie they’ll express horror, shock, outrage. Until then, they’re happy to adopt Oprah Winfrey’s initial attitude when faced with the charges about Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” accepting that “the underlying message of redemption … still resonates with me.”
“Black.White.” clearly has messages to convey about race relations, but does twisting reality so the footage fits into narrative form undermine them? For practical purposes, not for an audience willing to embrace the “underlying message,” whatever that might be.
Unlike pundits and critics, the average fan lacks the time or energy to get overly riled up regarding such matters. Baseball aficionados certainly suspected something was fishy as Bonds and other power hitters jacked out homeruns at an unprecedented rate. Wowed by the long ball, hard questions were left for another day.
Die-hard political partisans are especially adept at concocting their own protected alcoves of reality by rejecting inconvenient data, as evidenced by the email that poured in following a recent Variety piece about the impact of President Bush’s sagging poll numbers on conservative cable and radio talkers.
The story yielded a flurry of responses, with many conservatives adhering to the relatively new strategy of refuting any news with which they disagree as the orchestrated handiwork of the “liberal media.” One woman born on the wrong side of clever highlighted this “kill the messenger” mentality by insisting that surveys citing a decline in the president’s popularity must be conducted “by Dumbocrats for Dumbocrats.”
With reality TV, it’s easy to conclude that people inherently understand these programs are just as juiced as those ballplayers, thus absolving their purveyors of responsibility for “misleading” the audience. Under this theory, viewers are content to suspend disbelief, so why make a fuss?
Alas, that assumption belies TV imagery’s persuasive power, where seeing is believing, despite whatever cynicism people express should a pollster call. Nor does it address the toll exacted on public discourse when “reality” is whatever one chooses to accept, breeding a toxic environment where, as Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten observed, “It becomes hard to have a rational conversation about anything.”
As for everyone recognizing reality TV’s artifice, if viewers didn’t buy into these scenarios at some level, they’d go back to watching scripted dramas that employ better (and better-known) actors. It’s the imprimatur of “reality” that invests programs like the FX show with both relatable underpinnings and a train-wreck quality that makes it difficult to turn away.
In a sense, the media have ingested their own kind of steroid to become louder and more provocative — a necessary evil, some would say, to compete in the modern era. And while viewers might intuitively know when something’s too good to be true, given the hunger for new thrills, who are they going to trust — those nagging voices of skepticism, or their own lying eyes?