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Can They Talk? Yes--Just Don’t Expect Fairness

“This is crazy! Why aren’t these people in jail?”

Joan Rivers is incredulous. She is outraged. And no wonder. She has just heard three divorced parents charge on her syndicated talk show that their young children had been sexually abused while in the court-ordered custody of the other parent.

Each has told Rivers a similar story of a separate cold, indifferent judge who had ignored or rejected the evidence presented by the “good” parent and perpetuated a child’s stay with the “bad” parent. In effect, America is told, this was court-mandated sexual abuse.

Rivers is beside herself. Her face twisted into an expression of intense suffering, she demands to know: “What’s going on here?”

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Court is what’s going on here. Talk Show Court, a TV phenomenon of the ‘80s that’s seeping into the ‘90s.

Lose in real court? Take your case to the more sympathetic Talk Show Court. Clowns like Zsa Zsa do it, serious people, too. No Judge Wapners here. In this court, the talk show host is a hanging judge who hears what you have to say, commiserates, then convicts and passes sentence on the other side without hearing the other side. On occasions like this--when the accused is given no opportunity to respond to charges against them--Rivers is a one-person lynch mob.

But she’s not alone.

At various times, and in various degrees, all the major daytime talk shows employ this tactic, especially during their frequent forays into volatile topicality. When not featuring transvestites, these shows are revolving wheels of adult rape and child abuse, with the consoling host invariably lending a sympathetic ear and siding with the underdog accuser. Nice and neat.

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Getting both sides can be a little messy. But isn’t that what fairness is about?

Of all the hosts, only Phil Donahue has the inclination as well as the skills and temperament to play devil’s advocate occasionally in lieu of both sides being present. And give Geraldo Rivera credit for sometimes pointing out that viewers are hearing only one side. Too often, however, he’ll then go on to present only that one side, hence little is gained.

Sally Jessy Raphael is notorious for having unbalanced shows on significant topics. And so is Oprah Winfrey. Their sincerity isn’t in question, only their judgment in the way they sometimes approach their jobs.

Now Winfrey puts on some great shows, for example. Her recent session with Truddi Chase--a tormented woman said to have 92 separate personalities--was an incredible hour that was infinitely more compelling than ABC’s two-part drama about Chase. Winfrey was a warm and compassionate sponge, perfect for this occasion. When other occasions call for a different sort of host, however, wrong number.

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These talk show hosts grind out so many programs that there isn’t time for them to be adequately briefed on some of the complex topics they deal with. So you have the impression--especially in the case of Rivers, whose magazine format affords her even less time with each subject--that they frequently go in almost cold.

There’s no harm when the subject is trivial. On this conveyor belt, however, the dancing poodle is followed by the rape victim or vice versa.

Thus, today’s talk show host is an extension of an even bigger TV phenomenon, the blurring of news and entertainment. These afternoon talk shows are not the land of Johnny Carson or Arsenio Hall, where amusement is the primary goal. This is the land of the entertainer/journalist who wears almost as many hats as Truddi Chase has personalities.

The trend has roots in another age. That Edward R. Murrow’s reputation as the icon of CBS News is chiseled in granite, for example, ignores his six-year stint in the 1950s as arm-chair host of the chatty CBS series “Person to Person,” which was the grandfather of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

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We have also the tradition of the network morning shows, where the news and funnies have been merging for years, where NBC’s “Today,” for example, calls upon Deborah Norville to interview both Daniel Noriega and Miss Piggy.

Then, too, we have the tradition of the socialite journalist pioneered on TV by Barbara Walters. You can catch her on ABC having serious sit-downs with world leaders or singing and dancing with celebrities. And now Connie Chung seems determined to carve a similar niche for herself on CBS.

Somehow, however, the stakes seem higher on talk shows, where heavy topics are too often mangled by hosts who are essentially entertainers, with enlightenment and fairness becoming a casualty.

The miscasting boggles. Journalist Joan Rivers? This is crazy.

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