Well, the Ashley Madison leak happened and in short order Josh Duggar was exposed as having two accounts on the site as well as an OK Cupid profile. Needless to say, this is delightful to those of us who dislike everything famille Duggar stands for, especially given earlier revelations about Josh, the incestuous paedophile (ineptly covered up by Mom and Pop Duggar). But I’m a reality producer, so I’m far more preoccupied by what the story means in terms of what I do for a living than in passing judgement on someone who clearly has issues. (Oddly enough, I find the Ashley Madison revelation somewhat comforting, as it indicates that at least his present appetites – that we are aware of – involve adults.)
When the molestation story broke, however, I was enraged. Not at Duggar or his strangely childlike parents–as I have zero expectations where those freaks are concerned–but at TLC. Based on my (admittedly) obsessive research regarding the abuse, the Springdale cops started investigating the matter in 2006. This would be after TLC specials about the Duggars had aired, but before they got more specials and, ultimately, a series. And the matter only came to the attention of the authorities because, as a result of those specials, the family was scheduled to appear on Oprah, and an anonymous individual e-mailed Oprah‘s producers with information about Duggar’s molesting ways. Those producers, to their infinite credit, canceled the Duggar’s appearance and forwarded the info to the Dept. of Health & Human Services hotline (1.800.422.4453), which triggered a Springdale police investigation.
I’m sure that there are those who might question how reporting criminal behavior to authorities is something one should receive infinite credit for. After all, wouldn’t anyone? Well, um, apparently not the folks at TLC. Because it frankly beggars belief that TLC and the production company shooting the series were somehow oblivious to these charges. The anonymous e-mailer who contacted Oprah clearly had an axe to grind (let’s take a moment to thank baby Jeebus for that grinder and their axe, amen), and would surely not hesitate to contact TLC with the same allegations. Additionally, the accusations against Josh were available in online forums from 2007 onwards. Thus, unless we assume that in the year of 2007 Discovery Communications had not yet succumbed to the fiendish temptations of the interwebs (and were thus unable to receive e-mail or research their Talent online), we have no choice but to assume that someone(s) knew about it, and chose to ignore it.
Which is why I was so pissed at TLC in particular, and the industry in general. Because none of this surprises me. People who work in reality television are subject to precisely zero rules of personal and professional conduct. I have only once been given anything resembling ethical instruction on a show and that was:
That’s it. There are no rules about how far we can push the reality (like the degree to which we can fake or just plain make shit up about people); how crews should be treated (PAs on reality in particular are abused to the point where their lack of sleep actually endangers the crew members and cast they drive around); or how far we can let physical fights to develop between characters before stepping in. The lines are beyond blurred.
Added to that, we work in a genre that celebrates freakish behavior of all kinds (freaks be good TV) and yet we have no regulations in place to address when the purely freaky becomes, you know, fucking criminal. Obviously people should always contact the cops about criminal behavior, but many won’t. We don’t wanna lose our jobs or we figure someone else will deal with it or whatever. Nor is there any incentive to do the right thing. While Oprah‘s producers were empowered by their bosses (or boss lady?) to immediately put the kibosh on enablers of child abuse, TLC inspires no similar sense of empowerment.
Just take a look at their dismal response to the Duggar allegations becoming public: a half-assed statement, followed by months of hoping the whole thing would just go away, followed be a begrudging cancellation, followed by sniveling about their loss of revenue. Oh, but on the upside, they are gifting us with this documentary special on molestation starring the parents who hid their son’s abuse and starring some of his victims. (The last time I was so mortified by a gift was December 1990 when my girlfriend’s mother gave me a sailor suit for Christmas.) I suppose it’s too much to expect that a broadcaster with such a history of problematic shows would be capable of more.
Which is why we need a free-standing set of ethical guidelines.
We need a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts to illuminate the otherwise murky endeavor of producing Reality TV. Because things get so relative it is sometimes difficult to know when you’ve crossed a line. Such guidelines could be produced by people working at all levels of the industry, and signed onto at will. And while most likely not legally binding, signing on would indicate a will to do the right thing. An oath can be a powerful thing: those of us who have taken the Pledge for Sarah can attest to how it’s changed us. It made this hardened reality producer almost weep.
And we need to do this sooner rather than later. Because Josh Duggar isn’t the only problematic character out there. He is just the very public tip (yeah, I said it) of an enormous iceberg.
Also, Josh Duggar’s brother-in-law is my new favorite dude.