DENVER — It’s Tuesday night and the Millers are watching television’s most popular prime-time show with their children, 10 and under, in their suburban Denver home.
A teenager pursuing a dream takes the platform on “American Idol” and does her best to sing her heart out. In front of some 30 million television viewers, Simon Cowell, a judge on the program, tells her what he really thinks.
“That was terrible,” said Cowell, a middle-aged multi-millionaire. “I mean just awful.”
Randy Jackson, a rock legend and another judge, suggested the girl pursue singing lessons.
This girl was so bad, Cowell argued, no lessons on earth could help. “You have to have a talent to progress,” he said. “I don’t believe Cassandra has any singing talent.”
The girl looks hurt, and the audience wonders how Simon will shred the next youngster who sings off key. The show’s a hit mostly because of what Simon says, and he’s paid a whopping $36 million per season to “keep it real” and tell contestants whatever pops into his head.
Welcome to the world of bully-boy TV and radio, in which the highest paid stars with the largest audiences are best known for quick insults and biting sarcasm. Sure, Don Imus was fired for a joke, but media critics say that’s only because he crossed a jagged line into the “gotcha” zone.
“They get rewarded for going right up to a line, and they come crashing down if they cross it,” said Ray Pritchard, president of Keep Believing Ministries in Chicago. “It’s all part of the show. For the celebrity, the art is in knowing where that line is and balancing on it. When Imus took off against the women of Rutgers, with a disgusting comment, he was going after women who had done nothing to set themselves up for such a vicious, vicious attack. Americans decided that crossed the line.”
Some thought Cowell crossed the line when he rolled his eyes and turned his head April 17, seemingly in response to a contestant’s expression of sorrow for families of Virginia Tech victims, one day after the massacre. In response to public outcry, Cowell explained that he didn’t hear the contestant’s comment and was responding to something fellow judge Paula Abdul told him.
Diane Miller said she became concerned with Cowell’s routine insults and smarminess after realizing that one of her children was emulating him.
“Our 7-year-old started talking like Simon,” Miller said. “We’re trying to raise him with a Catholic sense of dignity and kindness, but he thinks Simon is very cool. Everyone at his Catholic school thinks Simon is cool. When I served dinner one night, he said ‘this food is really awful. It’s just dreadful.’ He even used a British accent.”
If Simon Cowell isn’t bad enough, there’s the hit show “House,” starring a drug-addicted doctor who ridicules critically ill patients and their loved ones with personal insults and callous disregard for their grief. His colleagues tolerate racist and sexist banter because Dr. House is smart, attractive, successful and always a hero at the end of each show.
When a character named Sister Eucharist brought a fellow nun to the hospital because of hallucinations, she told Dr. House: “Sister Augustine believes in things that aren’t real.”
“I thought that was a job requirement for you people,” House said, launching a confrontational conversation in which he tried to talk the sisters out of their faith.
Pritchard, of Keep Believing Ministries, said bully TV and radio appeal to a culture that’s increasingly angry and anxiety ridden, in which the audience lives vicariously through celebrities who direct hostilities at fellow humans. None of it, he said, reflects Christian charity.
“Behind the words of the rude, confrontational media stars is an arrogance that says ‘I can get away with this, and you’ll never stop me,’” Pritchard said. “The message is ‘I get away with this because I’m smarter, better looking and I have more money than you.’ And the audience consumes this, because many of us sometimes wish we could say these things to someone else. If we’ve had a bad day, we’d like to speak our minds, but we don’t have the social permission that these powerful celebrities do.”
Melissa Caldwell, senior director of programs for the Parents Television Council, said her organization received so many complaints about Cowell’s caustic remarks to young contestants that her organization downgraded its recommendation for the show this season. Once approved by the council for all audiences, the show now has a cautionary rating because of concerns that young children may learn to mimic Cowell’s insults.
“Our members have expressed concern that their kids will get the idea from Simon that it’s okay to make fun of other people,” Caldwell said.
Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media, said some of the worst incivility plays out on reality TV shows, such as “Survivor,” “The Real World,” and Donald Trump’s hit show “The Apprentice” — which popularized the catch phrase, “You’re fired.”
“Instead of emphasizing cooperation, most of these shows center around rewarding the most cutthroat, lousiest human being in the bunch,” Peters said. “In ‘Survivor,’ the person who does well who is usually the person who plots behind the scenes to do sinister things to the other contestants. The inevitable result of all this negativity is the coarsening of all social relationships. It breeds a willingness to be hostile and unkind to anyone who upsets us.”
Caldwell said TV has contained an element of bully behavior since its earliest days, but it may be reaching new lows.
“One reason we changed our rating on ‘American Idol’ is just that it seems to be far meaner now than it has been in years past,” Caldwell said.
Pritchard said Christians who consider insult entertainment as harmless fun should turn to the Bible.
“I can quote hundreds of verses from the Bible that say this kind of discourse is wrong,” Pritchard said. “But how about the Golden Rule: ‘Do until others as you would have them do unto you.’ Much of what we’re watching and listening to these days boldly violates that rule.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from