When It Comes to Ethics, It’s Too Late for Jon & Kate


Allow me to stray from the usual topics I cover on this blog in order to vent about something that sickens me to the core. After all, what good is a blog if you can’t hijack it once in a while and use it as a personal soapbox?

Actually, there is some relevance to communications and public relations, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let me just repeat something I posted on my Facebook status and which, as of this writing, elicited 12 comments not including my own responses to them.

Hey, Jon & Kate: Divorce isn’t an intriguing plot twist on a reality show. It’s an awful reality for the kids and a sadness that never goes away for the grown-ups.

Of course, I’m referring to Jon and Kate Gosselin of the reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” which airs on the TLC network, the irony of which didn’t escape one of my Facebook friends. The show chronicles the life of this family which includes sextuplets and twins — their struggles, joys, everyday challenges and celebrations. As reality shows go, it sounds good and in fact has been pretty good. My 12-year-old son has watched it a few times because he gets a kick out of the kids.

But then reality disrupted this reality show. Jon and Kate’s marriage hit some serious bumps including allegations that each of them had cheated on the other. Jon and Kate weren’t appearing together on the show, they took separate vacations, Jon got his ears pierced and everything fell apart. All in front of a nationwide audience.

When I first heard on TV news that the marriage was in trouble (and why, by the way, am I hearing about this on the news?), my first thought was what would my 12-year-old think. He seemed genuinely hurt when he saw the unavoidable tabloids in the supermarket line declaring that Jon was fooling around with a younger woman.

Then, when The Official Breakup was announced on the show this week, concern for my son’s reaction turned into disgust with the entire social system that would allow this television show to make a mockery of marriage and, especially, of parenthood.

Who do these people think they are? And by “these people” I mean a long list of guilty parties:

  • The people who watch reality shows out of some need to live vicariously through others, to feel emotions by proxy, to be voyeurs in the privacy of their living rooms.
  • The people who create, produce, write and broadcast this crap, caring only about how cheaply they can produce “entertainment” in order to achieve greater profit margins.
  • The people who become “reality show stars,” who will do anything for money, who allow their greed to trump their dignity, their privacy and in this case the sanctity of their family.

Let me get personal for a moment. My marriage fell apart nearly seven years ago. My sons were 10 and 6 at the time. It was the most excruciatingly painful experience of my life so far. To this day, I deeply regret that I had a hand in putting my children through such an experience. And the sadness really doesn’t leave. Whether or not it was “for the best,” divorce is an ugly, awful thing for a family to go through.

It’s not entertainment.

I truly wonder how anyone connected to this show — and to the many other equally repugnant shows that trade on people’s problems, shortcomings and quirks — live with themselves. I believe there is an ethical issue here. Where should the line be drawn when it comes to broadcasting tragedies like the dissolution of a family?

And that’s where the connection to communications and public relations comes in, though I admit it is a tangential one. Thinking about the obvious ethical lapses among the guilty parties I noted earlier, I realized how proud I am that I belong to two professional associations that hold members accountable for our actions. The Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators each has a code of ethics that guides how we do our work. For example, there’s no room for prostituting our clients in order to make a quick buck.

Maybe the reality-show industry could use a code of ethics of its own.

Update 6/26/09: Good communication is good communication, whether in the office or at home. If your kids are asking questions about the Gosselin divorce — or even if they’re not, but you know they’re  aware of it — this article from Common Sense Media has some good tips for how to talk about it. Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Virginia Franco for passing this along.

6 Responses

  1. Robert, I agree completely and I thank you for sharing such personal insight. Reality shows, for the most part, do more damage than good, in my opinion. This one has really crossed the line on so many levels. The other competitive shows don’t encourage communication and teamwork, they encourage lies and deceit to win.

  2. I agree with you, Robert. But what actually bothers me even more than the reality shows themselves is the other point you mentioned about how they get covered as “news” now. The nightly news reporting on Jon and Kate is just as disturbing as when some high profile murder trial gets covered on Entertainment Tonight. When did violent crime become entertainment? And when did the exploits (and exploitation) of wannabe celebreties become news? I missed a societal memo somewhere…

    Remember when TLC, which airs the Jon and Kate show, actually was called The Learning Channel? I think the folks who run it forgot that a long time ago. Oscar Wilde said, “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.” It seems he was sadly right – and increasingly so.

    • I think news became entertainment with the advent of 24-hour news cycles. They have to fill all that time with something, so what used to be known as news judgment goes out the window in favor of content of any kind.

  3. Robert, THANK YOU.

  4. Robert, I am a little late jumping into this discussion, but you have clearly stated your case on this and it’s right on target. Your personal story proves your points very well. Thanks for your willingness to share it with the online world.

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