Like many people, I rarely get the chance to watch TV in the morning.
But since daytime talk shows are fast becoming the preferred method of communicating ideas that shape our culture — a daily town meeting of the air, as TV people might say — I became curious the other morning about the public discourse that millions of my fellow Americans were engaging in while I was at the office.
Flipping through the channels, I spotted Geraldo’s fiery eyes and toothy grin and decided to stick around for a peek. I was not familiar with his morning show, but the promotional ads were always hailing Geraldo as a fearless, crusading journalist who was not afraid to tackle the truly big social issues that affect our lives. Besides, he had one of the larger followings among the slew of talk-show hosts, despite that pitiful little episode a few years back with Al Capone’s empty vault.
So I poured a cup of coffee and settled in for an hour of insight before heading off to work.
Geraldo’s introduction promised a real grabber of a program. He was going to show real-life acts of criminal behavior captured on videotape by the criminals themselves. More than mere sensationalism, Geraldo assured us in a dramatic voice, these revealing, behind-the-scenes home movies would take us into the minds of the very people who commit the crimes that strike fear in the hearts of good citizens every day.
Well, that was a different approach, I thought. Perhaps I could learn something from morning TV after all.
Seated on the panel were a few young gang members. The males wore knit watchcaps and gold chains and oversized jackets. They had nicknames like Phats and Bottles and one that had the initial “J” in it. The females wore sunglasses and baseball caps and had nicknames like Little Spoon and Baby Gangsta.
They all looked extremely angry and hostile, which might have been caused by the fact that Geraldo made them share the stage with a sullen New Jersey detective who makes his living by busting gang members.
Everyone on the panel was seething with rage.
Geraldo then showed a grainy video of a few of the male gang members standing on a street corner at night. They were waving an assortment of frightening weapons in the air and screaming obscenities into the lens.
Geraldo then turned to the panelists and asked where they got the weapons featured on the tape. Every other word of their surly response had to be bleeped. When Geraldo asked them to speak nicely, the gang members answered with a long string of bleeps.
Geraldo glared at them, which made the audience twitch nervously.
Then Geraldo showed a video of two of the female panelists stealing a car and then coolly shooting the owner in the back. Such brutality so early in the day made me flinch. So far, the show was nothing but pure sensationalism. I wondered when Geraldo was going to provide some of that insight he had promised about the workings of the criminal mind.
For some reason, Geraldo then introduced the man who had been shot in the carjacking. As he walked onstage, the two female gang members leaped up and tried to rip his throat out. Geraldo wrestled with the man while two guards wrestled with the women, who were making the bleeper shriek continuously.
Geraldo, breathing hard, smiled into the camera and broke for a commercial. It was an ad for a boxed set of Clint Eastwood movies. The ad showed Clint sneering at a variety of bad guys and blowing them away, one by one. By the time the ad was over, Clint had slaughtered at least a dozen people. The screen flashed a warning: “Parental discretion advised.”
Back on Geraldo, a videotape showed two gang members banging a crack addict over the head repeatedly with a club. As if the program wasn’t tense enough already, Geraldo brought the crack addict onstage to meet his attackers. Phats and Bottles immediately flew at the junkie. Geraldo jumped into the melee and wrestled some more.
One gang member threw a cup of water at another, which caused everyone on the panel to leap up and start swinging their fists again. The place was pure bedlam. The bleeper screamed as it tried to keep pace with the obscenities. Someone threw another cup of water, which caught Geraldo in the face and made the audience members squeal their disapproval.
The guards hauled a few of the more belligerent gang members off the stage. Geraldo smiled at the camera and walked into the audience, where a grandmotherly woman mopped his face. The audience sighed at the tender scene.
After a commercial for “Hooked on Phonics,” which featured sweet-faced schoolchildren, the Geraldo show returned for a few final minutes of spirited discussion about violence in America. I couldn’t grasp much of what was being said, though, because of all the screaming and swinging and bleeping.
“Well … a very melancholy, if eventful, hour,” Geraldo said, shaking his head sagely and flashing his toothy smile.
Feeling drained and slightly melancholy myself, I turned off the TV and went to work. When it comes to daytime talk shows, I guess I hadn’t really been missing much after all.