Don’t Blame Jerry Springer for Our Modern Tabloid Mayhem

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
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Jerry Springer, the controversial television host and politician whose namesake talk show documenting American chaos drew even more controversy itself, has passed away at the age of 79. Over the course of 27 seasons and nearly 30 years on air, Springer took a tabloid-esque approach to human interest stories and aired them live before a studio audience. He featured cheaters, canned-food fetishists, people who wanted to marry their cousins and every intersection of individuals and low-brow drama they could bring to the table, ideally ending in a physical altercation or a spin on the show’s permanent stripper pole.

“Our show is as silly, crazy, outrageous, sometimes as stupid as you can get,” Springer said of his program on Larry King Live in 1998. But in the five years since the show last aired in 2018, these types of narratives didn’t go away. Instead, they became fodder for TikToks or bizarre PR stunts by OnlyFans models disguised as New York Post articles. Perhaps, though, these stories were best served on stage, guided by the personable, clean-cut sleazeball that was Jerry Springer.

Springer was always the subject of criticism. It was blatantly voyeuristic, often exploitative, turning often vulnerable people and their circumstances into a carnivalesque ritual for public consumption. And it aired right in the middle of the day, a treat for the homebodies and kids home sick from school rather than the late-night television hours where it may have been in more appropriate company.

Regularly, the unspoken message was, “Aren’t you glad this isn’t you? Isn’t it nice to feel better than these people?” Jerry Springer was regularly accused of specifically exploiting poor peopleChuck D of Public Enemy once suggested that the federal government was paying Springer to showcase dysfunctional young Black people. There were also instances in which the show arguably led to real harm. In 2002, for example, a guest was murdered by her ex-husband just hours after the two had appeared on the show. Springer himself expressed regret over the show toward the end of his life, though perhaps somewhat in jest. “I’m so sorry. What have I done? I’ve ruined the culture,” he said on a podcast in November 2022. “I just hope hell isn’t that hot because I burn real easy. I’m very light-complected, and that kind of worries me.”

Jerry Springer, Legendary Talk Show Host, Dies at 79

But Springer didn’t build the culture he showcased—these stories would have persisted whether they were shared on national television or not. And Springer offered the rare opportunity for actual people, not celebrities or people with money or much status of any kind, to dictate their narratives for themselves.

“It doesn’t affect me but I do think it matters to the people that are on it, otherwise they wouldn’t call to come on,” Springer said in an interview with the BBC in 2014. “They come on because for one week of their lives, someone is listening to them.”

Of course, this may be an easy defense. Springer further rejected the idea that people came on the show for a taste of so-called “fifteen minutes of fame” due in large part to the fact that his show never translated to any sort of popularity for his guests after their appearance and that many used disguises and aliases. This idea that people wanted simply to be heard may well be true for some, but it seems naive to think none were driven to reveal their private dilemmas by the allure of appearing on television. And no doubt, this all could have perpetuated a cycle of voyeurism in which this culture of trashy mayhem thrived. But even so, Springer remains a reflection of a culture that existed well before the show itself.

“I anchored the news for ten years—that was exploitation,” Springer said in the aforementioned BBC interview. “Never once was there a conversation in the news room that we should drop a story because this story might hurt this person, hurt their career, ruin their marriage or cause them discomfort. We never cared about the people we did stories on.”

With this, then, Springer offered a dose of reality dictated at least in part by the people actually living it. This is why it was so popular: Whether you saw yourself directly in it or not, its contents were familiar. In all likelihood, you and your community looked more like the guests on the show than the ones on primetime sitcoms. “Television should reflect the entire culture,” Springer explained. “If all shows were like mine, that would be wrong. But you can’t just have television like Friends, Seinfeld, all these wealthy, good-looking people.”

Springer may have curated these stories of low-brow shock, seedy affairs, freaky characters and general debauchery, but he is not why this culture exists. Whether he perpetuated, or even incentivized our desire to hear them, we’re still reckoning with our interest in it with him gone. Tabloids still exist, and publications banking on drama are increasingly dedicated to that of “everyday” people just as they are celebrities.

What’s different now is that these stories are fed to us constantly. Grievances are shared with one-sided explanations in the hopes of garnering followers; niche oddities are pivoted into bite-size stories meant to drive more subscribers on OnlyFans. And maybe in some ways, this is better than the Springer format. Now people are not only listening, but the sources of these stories are getting something out of it. But it’s all missing something.

It’s missing the neat encapsulation of an hour-long TV show, the opportunity for all parties to duke it out on stage at one time and for the rest of us to move on with our days. It’s missing the human element that the confessional TV show offers, now flattened into algorithmic social media traffic. Above all, it’s missing a shepherd to guide us through this mayhem. It's missing Jerry Springer.

6 Times ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ Was Radically Outrageous

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