The revelation, over the weekend, that the sudden death of a nurse who was pranked by a pair Australian radio personalities posing as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles was self inflicted has sparked a round of soul-searching throughout the media.
Jacintha Saldhana was on duty last Tuesday when she put the hoax call through to the floor where Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was recovering from a case of severe morning sickness; and while the receptionist faced no disciplinary action from her bosses or rebuke from the royal family, the public humiliation—though likely to be fleeting—was apparently too much for her to bear. Given the finality of Saldhana’s decision, I have little doubt the mother of two was already teetering on the edge of emotional stability, but that’s the problem with throwing pies. You never know who they’re going to hit or how they’ll react to the mess.
The fallout from Saldhana’s death was decisive: The DJs, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, were suspended indefinitely, their show was cancelled, and the station’s owners promised a full inquiry into the decision-making process leading up to the airing of the prank. Meanwhile, across the moral divide, members of the international TV, radio and print media spent all day Monday engaged in a discourse on the ethical shortcomings of shock jockery, content to point fingers at a handful of thoughtless line-crossers rather than the ethos that spawns them. Yet there is one large contingent missing from this collective introspection: the audience—that faceless mass, whose insatiable hunger for increasingly vile and outlandish entertainment made the tragedy possible in the first place.
There are big bucks in public humiliation. It’s come to define so much of our entertainment that we hardly notice it anymore—until someone dies, at least.
In just over a decade we have become a culture of voyeurs, glued with rapt attention to our wide screens watching Kim Kardashian’s contrived marriage crumble, Jersey Girl Snooki Polizzi get punched in the face (a satisfying outtake if ever there was one), and nameless fat people sweating, puking and passing out on The Biggest Loser. And if that’s not enough for you, there’s drug addiction, bad parenting, mental illness, wife swapping and a plump little train wreck who goes by the name Honey Boo Boo Child engaging in behavior that is beyond the capacity of language to properly describe. Think of it as abstract expressionism for the lowest common denominator.
There are now more than 300 reality TV shows on the air or in production, compared to just four in 2000, statistics show. They all have one thing in common: an audience that demands authenticity at someone else’s expense. Remember that couple that lied about their kid flying away on a homemade blimp so they could generate hype for a reality show they hoped to launch? They knew what we wanted, and they delivered. Only the kid wasn’t really in any danger, and what fun is that? When it wasn’t real any more, we lost interest, changed the channel and went back to watching Survivor. Instead of relief for the safety of the child, we felt contempt at the ruse.
Michael Strangelove, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa who teaches a class on pop culture and the media industry, says we are living in the “high age of voyeurism” and compares reality entertainment on radio and television to circus sideshows and French asylums that sold tickets for patrons to interact with patients.
“We have a fascination with the perverse and the unusual—the freaks and the outcasts,” he said.
I plead guilty. There is something that draws me to the surreal theater of shows like The Littlest Groom and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance. It’s the same impulse that compels people to stare at car wrecks.
Contrary to what some may believe, schadenfreude is not a modern phenomenon, and it has intrigued psychologists, philosophers and theologians since at least the days of Aristotle. By some accounts it’s biological. Psychologists tend to correlate schadenfreude with low self-esteem.
Whatever its source, it’s hard to see its merits. Arthur Schopenhauer called schadenfreude the “worst trait in human nature.” What was once an occasional guilty pleasure has evolved into a defining cultural milieu.
In the wake of Jacintha Saldhana’s suicide, let’s all try to remember that real people can and do suffer for our entertainment and accept that ultimately we hold a place of responsibility for their fate right next to DJs like Mel Greig and Michael Christian.