Forget Janet Jackson’s notorious Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”; forget the soul-deadening sexuality constantly displayed on MTV; Exhibit A in the argument that television is a purveyor of rotten values remains the longtime champ: The Jerry Springer Show. Only, here’s the weird thing: in its current incarnation, Springer’s latter-day freak show also provides evidence of a growing resurgence in this country of higher standards of decency and morality. It’s a trend nowhere more evident than on daytime television.

Not that I mean to credit Springer with anything resembling good taste. For 12 years now, the former Cincinnati mayor and would-be Democratic Senate candidate has presided from his Chicago studio over a program whose socially redeeming value registers well into the minus range. Here, every day—in some markets, twice and thrice a day—family members parade their shared carnal adventures, and morbidly obese, slatternly, foul-mouthed women battle over useless, slack-jawed men; while the audience (whose female members get in on the act by exposing their breasts in exchange for bead necklaces), urges them on, chanting “whore, whore, whore” or, less creatively, “Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry.”

Here’s the description of one recent episode on the show’s own website. “Debbie is torn between her current husband and her ex-husband, who happened to be buddies when they were in jail together! She admits she has feelings for them both but in the end says her ex is the jailbird for her! Next . . . Loretta has been dating April for 6 months but has also been sleeping with April’s sister for 3! She plans to break up the family and leave April for her sister today! Then . . . Lynnette is here to steal her cousin’s man, Thaddeus! She has absolutely no remorse for her betrayal but gets a taste of her own medicine when Thaddeus chooses his long time lover, Lynnette’s cousin!”

Truly, there is no rational defense for this festival of perversity, and one can only guess at its effects on those who view it day after day after day—many of whom reportedly are college students, who regard it as a goof. Presumably even their more socially progressive instructors, tutored in the doctrines of Derrida and Foucault, hesitate to go quite as far in their libertine enthusiasms as Jerry, who once broadcast a show on bestiality, featuring a young woman who had an affair with her dog and a man describing his five years of wedded bliss with a horse named Pixel.

How then could anyone regard Springer’s circus as a reason for optimism? Well, for one thing, it used to be even worse. Until 1999, guests would actually brawl on Jerry’s stage—indeed, the producers encouraged them to do so—going at each other with fists and bared nails, often inflicting real damage. But after intense pressure from critics, including Chicago religious figures, the show discontinued the mayhem—with great reluctance, since it was a ratings-grabber. “We will produce and distribute a program that we feel is responsible—no violence, physical confrontation or profanity,” read the press release issued at the time. Now guests merely try to get at each other, held apart as they flail away by a crew of massive guys, whose leader, Steve, has become another star of the program.

More to the point, Springer ends every broadcast with a brief segment called “Jerry’s Final Thought,” in which he pretends to wring some social, even moral, meaning from the insanity just concluded. “The fact is,” he intoned on a recent show about cheating—in one guise or another, the subject of almost every installment—“if you’re willing to screw over a family member or friend for a screw with his or her mate, how can you ever be committed to any relationship—and why would anyone be willing to risk being committed to you?”

Never mind that as he reads from the monitor, Springer radiates smarmy insincerity. Given the context, it says quite a bit that vice goes out of its way to pay tribute to virtue.

It’s easy to make the case that, in the vast wasteland that is broadcast television (as FCC chairman Newton Minnow had it more than 40 years ago), daytime TV has long been the most barren region of all—home not only to the bathetic soaps, with their ludicrous plot twists, but also to creaky sitcoms, retreads of game shows long since departed from prime time, and featherweight talk shows that feature either sob stories or actors energetically plugging their latest projects.

Yet there is also daytime’s version of reality television. In important respects, it is far more real—and certainly more telling about the state of the culture—than the stuff that goes by that name in the evening.

Springer’s show is the nadir of the genre, the television equivalent of maggots churning on rotten meat. Nonetheless, even it, in its disturbing and often depressing way, is revealing. Talk about the other America! Like it or not, people like Springer’s guests really are out there, in apparent profusion, stealing each other’s mates, cursing up a storm, drinking, and beating the hell out of each other, literally and figuratively. (One can only thank one’s lucky stars that they are surely among the 50 percent of Americans who never think to vote—and won’t, at least until Jerry goes back into politics.)

Generally speaking, though, daytime reality television gets more recognizably real as the day goes along. Considerably more reputable than Springer (for however much that’s worth) is the show that follows him in the New York market: Maury. For while Maury Povich, husband of newscaster Connie Chung and son of legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, also presides over an exploitation fest—airing shows, for instance, on mothers accused of seducing their daughters’ boyfriends—he is clearly far more willing to cast the proceedings as socially beneficial and even morally instructive.

Trading largely in messy interpersonal relations, Maury likes to present himself as a seeker of truth. Among his staples: using a lie detector to determine if one party in a relationship, usually the guy, is guilty as accused of cheating (he usually is). But Povich’s real specialty, the gimmick around which almost every other broadcast revolves, is the paternity test. The formula never varies. A woman, usually very young and very often black or Hispanic, comes onstage and declares, either angrily or tearfully, that she knows a given man fathered her child. After a couple of minutes of this drama, the accused male walks out—often, depending on how he’s just been characterized, to audience jeers—and just as vigorously denies that he is the father. The denial routinely involves the guy pointing toward a large picture of the kid in question, which is displayed at the back of the set, and emphasizing how dramatically the child’s features differ from his own. He’ll often cast aspersions on the mother’s character, too, peppering them with variations of the words “slut” and “whore.”

At this point, Maury says something along the lines of, “Well, let’s find out.” Ripping open a large manila envelope, he withdraws a sheet of paper and solemnly pronounces, “When it comes to two-year-old Jadiem, Corey, you are the father,” or, just as often, “When it comes to ten-month-old Treasure, Earnell, you are not the father.”

If the woman finds herself vindicated, she is apt to leap to her feet, exultant, and berate the man. One mother I saw spun around, thrust her backside to the camera and, pointing, screamed at the newly established dad, “Kiss my ass!” When the man is victorious, he is likely to strut, or throw up his hands in triumph like an athlete, while the woman, bursting into tears, runs backstage, Maury trailing—and both followed by a cameraman who records the host consoling her.

This human drama makes, I’m embarrassed to admit, for riveting television. But there is also enough sociology at play to leave one feeling only slightly unclean. For what we are witnessing here are flesh-and-blood examples of underclass pathology. The supply of accusers and accused seems inexhaustible. On one recent installment, the mother was back for a fifth time, testing two men (the seventh and eighth she’d had tested overall) for paternity of her toddler Mustafa—neither proving a match, as it turned out.

The host’s attitude toward all this dysfunction is somewhat ambivalent. Unfailingly, if the DNA establishes a given man as a child’s father, Maury forthrightly asks the guy if he now intends to become part of the child’s life. The typical response: “Yeah, I’m a man, I’ll step up to the plate.” Or: “I’m a man, I take care of my business.”

Nor, at least occasionally, does Povich try to hide his distress over what is unfolding before his cameras. “Sophia, let me ask you a question, because a lot of people are wondering this,” he said gently to one young woman before the results were in. “You say you got pregnant with him [once before], and had a miscarriage, and you say he laughed at you. So why would you sleep with him again?” Of course, she could offer no plausible answer. “You’ve got two children together,” he said to another couple, screaming profanities at each other after the show had established the man’s paternity. “Don’t you want them to grow up in a home where their mother and father respect each other? Don’t you want that?” The thought seemed not to have pierced the consciousness of either.

Yet from Maury there is never any real condemnation. Though the show pays lip service to the resurgent traditionalist virtue of accepting personal responsibility, the host often still seems to embrace the doctrine, so fashionable among post-sixties elites, that no sin is greater than passing judgment. The show typically ends not just without any expression of commonsense outrage—“You’ve had six kids by five different women? What is WRONG with you?!”—but also without any attention paid to the obvious, larger issue: the utter moral chaos of the world these guests inhabit. (The same moral schizophrenia appears in the commercials between segments. Nearly half the ads are pitches for job training—in air-conditioning or automotive repair, say, or hairdressing or secretarial work. The rest seem to be for sleazy ambulance-chasing law firms: “If you’ve been injured in an accident, tell the insurance company you mean business!”)

The one word almost never heard on Maury is “marriage”—the practice of which offers the best hope of refuge for these desperate women and their fatherless children. Of course, this neglect of marriage, too, is of a piece with contemporary elite attitudes, which not only tend to portray matrimony as confining but, with celebrity unwed mothers like Calista Flockhart in mind, often celebrate single motherhood as a valid alternative life-style—as if the decision of an unmarried Hollywood starlet to have a child is remotely akin to that of a 17-year-old girl in the South Bronx.

Even as I was monitoring the Povich show, the New York Times ran a hostile lead editorial on the Bush administration’s $1.5 billion initiative in support of marriage. “The whole idea of encouraging poor people to get married and stay married through classes and counseling sessions,” the Times complained, “ignores the main reason that stable wedlock is rare in inner cities: the epidemics of joblessness and incarceration that have stripped those communities of what social scientists call ‘marriageable’ men.”

The Times editorial board might well take a few mornings off to watch Maury. Many of the men who appear on Povich’s stage for paternity tests are neither jobless nor criminally inclined. More than a few, in fact, are bright and charming. As one explained himself, moments before being nailed as the father (possessed of all the breezy confidence of billionaire producer Steven Bing before a DNA test established him as the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s child): “Any time I wanted a booty call, I’d call her. . . . She’s the neighborhood ‘ho.’ ” And, he added for good measure, “The baby does not look like me at all.”

But if Povich tends to avoid passing judgment, daytime television from late morning into the afternoon now offers an array of other personalities whose job is to judge: the TV judges ruling on real cases in their courtroom sets.

In recent years, these judge shows have proliferated at an astonishing rate. In the New York market alone there are now seven on view every weekday—five ruled over by bona fide ex-jurists gone showbiz (the other two “judges” are lawyers). These shows provide yet another snapshot of latter-day American culture and mores—and not an especially pretty one, since it reveals a culture in considerable ethical disarray. Though this ethical breakdown is not exactly news, these shows powerfully demonstrate the degree to which moral laxity can wreak havoc in individual lives. Here we find parents ready to explain away even the most egregiously antisocial behavior by their children; motorists who believe the requirements of registration and insurance need not apply to them; legions of people who readily justify having trashed others’ property; and many, many jerks who borrow money from friends and lovers and later blithely insist that the loans were gifts.

At the same time, the collective success of such shows signals something more encouraging: the public’s yearning for real accountability and rigorously enforced standards. For though the TV judges vary a good deal in personal style, in the end what they share is of vastly greater importance: each is an unapologetic advocate of old-fashioned, no-excuses, responsible behavior. Indeed, in their judicial robes, dispensing commonsense justice between commercial breaks, they are probably the closest many Americans come to having authority figures in their lives. And though the shows are entertaining, each judge clearly takes his or her educative role extremely seriously.

By far the most familiar of the judges is, of course, the genre’s reigning superstar: Judith Sheindlin—Judge Judy. Appointed by then-mayor Ed Koch to New York’s family court in 1982 and named four years later the court’s supervising judge in Manhattan, Judge Judy, whose syndicated show launched in 1996, is so fierce a proponent of responsible behavior that comedy shows like Saturday Night Live have had easy fun parodying her. Anyone who comes before her court who has failed to behave well—whether by ignoring a contract or just fudging the truth—can expect the fourth degree, often followed by a dose of withering sarcasm or outright scorn. “Don’t try and pull the wool over my eyes,” she has warned hundreds of times, “I’m smarter than you!”

One particularly satisfying recent case pitted a young motorcycle cop against a young California woman, who’d brought along her parents to testify on her behalf. It seemed that after the cop had stopped the attractive and self-assured woman for speeding, she let it drop that her father was himself an officer, recently retired. Then, as the motorcycle cop wrote out her ticket, she called her dad on her cell phone, got out of the car, and said: “My father wants to speak to you.”

The officer, annoyed, refused to take the phone and, as the young woman indignantly put it, “stuck his hand in my face” and ordered her back into the car. She got her ticket. On returning home, she fired off a letter to the cop’s department complaining about his ostensibly rude behavior.

Throughout their daughter’s account, the parents stood proudly at her side, confident of vindication. After all, hadn’t the officer been needlessly rude? And why hadn’t he done them the courtesy of taking the phone, when, as they put it, the father only wished to discuss the car’s paperwork?

Talk about foolish! Hadn’t they ever seen the show? Did they have no idea who they were dealing with? The storm swiftly broke. Judge Judy, her voice dripping contempt, tore into the three of them. What did they think she was, stupid?! The girl was “a spoiled brat,” the parents enablers. How dare they try to pretend their intent hadn’t been to induce the cop to forgo the ticket! And how utterly loathsome that they’d try to wreck this honest cop’s career by placing a nasty letter in his file! And, to the parents: “Don’t try to tell me you didn’t help write it!” By the time she finished, the three of them fairly slunk out of court.

Watching such dazzling performances—and, of course, that is what they are—who can doubt the reason for Judge Judy’s immense success? In a world too much at ease with debased standards, her willingness to call rotten behavior precisely what it is, without the slightest patience for the excuses and rationalizations so commonly heard, is intensely bracing.

It’s not just Judge Judy; impatience with ethical laxity is common to all the TV judges. Take Judge Marilyn Milian, who in the New York market presides over The People’s Court on WCBS at the same hour that Judge Judy metes out her tough justice on WNBC.

In presentation, the two judges could hardly be more dissimilar. A feisty, attractive Hispanic redhead, Milian is promoted on the network as “the hottest judge on television,” and she flashes much saucy good humor. But the former Jeb Bush appointee to the Miami Circuit Court is as hard-nosed as Judge Judy about adherence to the law—and about civil behavior.

One show I saw involved a woman who’d stiffed an appliance store on a refrigerator and then had the gall to sue it for harassment when it tried to collect. Milian’s patience with the woman, already thin, evaporated entirely when the woman refused to stop talking out of turn. “Get her out of here,” Milian tersely instructed her bailiff. Moments later, after finding for the store owner, Milian addressed the woman’s counter-suit: “and you, madam,” she shouted, loud enough to be heard in the adjacent room, to which the woman had been banished, “get a big, fat zero.” Milian cupped her hands above her head, forming a goose egg, to drive the point home.

Significantly, only one of the seven judges plying the New York airwaves—the affable Houston attorney Larry Joe Doherty, presiding over Texas Justice—is a white male; four are African-American. And two of those four are women. While “Judge” Mablean Ephriam, the L.A. attorney who runs Divorce Court, is limited to handling squabbles between soon-to-be ex-spouses, Judge Glenda Hatchett, formerly chief presiding judge of the Fulton County, Georgia, juvenile court, roams across the vast landscape of contemporary duplicity and malfeasance. But youthful offenders are her specialty.

Her penchant for dramatic “interventions” with such offenders makes her the closest thing daytime TV has to a wild-eyed judicial activist. One broadcast, for example, featured a teenage girl who had turned against her mother and joined a gang, with whom she committed various crimes. But now, in Hatchett’s courtroom—her anguished, devoted mother beside her—the girl was persuasively contrite. So, invoking her best creative powers, the judge ruled that mother and daughter do a stint for Habitat for Humanity, working side by side.

In another case, also featuring a desperate mother and a child who’d gone bad, Judge Hatchett lectured the mother to get some spine. Then, in a surprise twist, Hatchett concluded by addressing her own mother, sitting in her courtroom. “I want you to spend some time [with the woman] after the show, Mama, ’cause she needs to understand that mothers don’t put up with this kind of carryin’ on. You can tell her about that—’cause I was a living witness!”

The prize for Number One hard-ass TV judge, though, could either go to Judge Joe Brown, formerly of the Shelby County criminal courts in Memphis, or to Judge Greg Mathis, recruited from Michigan’s 36th District Court. Both of these black men grew up in rough urban neighborhoods, and for each, his past is central to his worldview. Both talk a lot about character, responsibility, and the meaning of real success. Both will, when appropriate, slide from law-school English to street-speak. Hardly incidentally, and far more than is the case with the other TV judges, both deal on their shows with drug cases.

Listening one afternoon to garbled testimony from a witness in a case concerning an unpaid loan allegedly spent on methamphetamine, Mathis looked out over his courtroom set and pronounced, with no hint of a smile: “Children, this is your brain on drugs.” “You’re telling me that when your husband was taking his drug-addicted friend to the projects, he had no idea what was goin’ on?” he scornfully asked a woman in a later segment, whose car had been seized in a drug bust. As a viewer from Chicago enthused on the program’s website, “Judge Mathis recognizes game when it’s in his courtroom, and doesn’t go for it!”

Neither does Judge Brown, who, as Ebony magazine put it, “is the voice of the community that demands justice, the voice that demands that people step up and take responsibility for their actions and do the right thing.” (This is a very different community from the one the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world talk about, and doubtless Ebony is correct to identify it as speaking with the authentic communal voice.)

Indeed, by far the most severe tongue-lashing that I’ve heard delivered by any TV judge came courtesy of Judge Joe Brown. Its recipient: a tough-talking middle-aged woman—a reformed junkie—whose daughter had accused her of taking out credit cards in the daughter’s name and racking up thousands of dollars of purchases. The mother readily admitted to the daughter’s charge, telling Judge Brown it was her right to take the money, since the daughter owed her. When she was a young woman, the ex-junkie opined, “My mother made me pay $100 every two weeks. . . . That was teaching me responsibility.”

Judge Brown’s manner is laconic, and usually he hears a fair bit of evidence before passing judgment. But this time he couldn’t contain himself. “She didn’t do too well, did she?” he countered. “You turned into a junkie.”

“But I got back on track,” the women retorted. “I don’t think I owe her money. I think she owes me money,” she continued, returning to the case at hand. “I spent thousands of dollars raisin’ her, so I opened up a couple of credit cards in her name to reimburse myself.” Anyway, she added in yet further self-exoneration, she and her daughter fought quite a bit, and “I was very angry with her when I did this.”

This spiel proved the final straw for the judge, who lashed out at the mother like an avenging angel. “Do you know the worst adversity she’s had to face in her life?” he asked rhetorically, nodding toward the daughter in the plaintiff’s box. “It’s you! You are one of the reasons the inner cities have gone straight to hell,” he thundered. “It’s kinda hard to come up with language, lady, to describe your despicable conduct. You are a disgrace and a bloody shame to the human race. You ought to be in jail. . . . You might run into some of your old junkie friends.”

Perhaps the most surprising evidence on daytime TV of the growing thirst for moral direction, however, is the phenomenal success of Dr. Phil McGraw—surprising because, as a TV personality, Dr. Phil was the creation of Oprah Winfrey, the medium’s icon of touchy-feely nonjudgmentalism. Whereas the telegenic Winfrey is as reluctant to censure as she is generous with hugs and kisses, Dr. Phil is at once folksy and hard as nails, trading in rigorous standards and never timid in laying out the consequences that follow for those who try to slide by in life without meeting them. “You are conning yourself, you are conning your husband, you are conning your family, but you ain’t conning me,” he sternly told a woman whose repeated infidelities threatened her marriage. “You got an excuse for everything.”

Though McGraw’s show covers human folly in many dimensions (lately, compulsive overeaters), the host is at his most compelling when addressing Americans’ chronic unseriousness about the meaning and obligations of marriage, especially where children are concerned—in short, doing exactly what the elite media has attacked George W. Bush for doing. “What is wrong with you guys?” he demanded of one couple, who regularly battle viciously in front of their kids. “You have no idea how sick they are of listening to you two go back and forth. How sick to death they are of opening that door every time they come home and wondering, ‘What is it today?’ ”

On the same show, hearing the wife concede that, if given the chance, she wouldn’t marry her husband again, Dr. Phil looked at her with genuine pity. He himself had been married for 28 years, he told her, and if at that moment he learned that for some reason the marriage wasn’t legal, “I’d get right up and find her and marry her again.”

The audience greeted this comment with heavy applause. Moments later, at the show’s end, McGraw strode down the aisle to greet his wife, Robin, who sits in the audience, and, as happens every day, they walked out together, arm in arm.

Many who regard themselves as sophisticated surely find this tableau of togetherness both stagy and corny. But who can doubt that, in a world teeming with narcissism and amorality, in which so many in authority refuse to judge or uphold standards, it serves as a model and an inspiration for millions of Americans?


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next