Topic: Sports & Entertainment

American Idol Gives Back…and Lies

The most popular TV show on the planet, “American Idol,” combined its “results show” this week with a charity effort designed to raise money for the hungry in Africa and America. Enticing viewers by promising “the most shocking result in Idol history,” the show paraded various acts and features across the stage while pumping its own generosity. Still, most viewers were tuning in to see which of the six finalists would be jettisoned after millions of TV audience votes had been counted. The voting result had been “shocking”…MC Ryan Seacrest said so. What could it be? Was presumptive winner Melinda Doolittle going home? Was Sanjaya coming back?

No, the shock was that nobody was going home! The shock was, in other words, that Idol pulled a classic bait-and-switch scam to keep people watching a telethon, and bald-facedly lied about it. Seacrest announced that everyone had been given a reprieve, and this week’s votes would be added to next week’s votes, with two Idol wannabes getting the gate at that time. Assuming, of course, that this wasn’t a lie too.

One of the rationalizations given by the various people and websites who try to tamper with the “American Idol” competition is that it is “fixed.” Some people genuinely believe it, and there is periodic evidence that lends support to their theory. The judges’ comments certainly influence the voting, and there are times when their critiques seem oddly slanted, as in this past week, when all three chastised one of the best singers, LaKisha Jones, for over-vocalizing while praising Jordin Sparks to the skies despite a screechy version of “When You Walk Through a Storm.”

Then there are the instances of outright manipulation, as when the producers this season planted a smitten and tone-deaf young girl in camera range just so she could swoon over Sanjaya Malakar. Nevertheless, the proof is thin, and the conspiracy theory seems to violate the First Rule of Television, which is “Don’t louse up a good thing.” The show is epically popular because it is driven by public opinion, and risking a fraud by fixing the vote would be as unwise as it would be pointless.

This means that “American Idol” has a huge stake in protecting its integrity, a rather flimsy commodity given the presence of one judge (Paula Abdul) who seems incapable of giving a genuine critical opinion, and the too-frequent use of song genres that favor some competitors over others, as when the women were forced to interpret the songs of Elvis Presley last season. So the outrageous dishonesty in furtherance of the worthy goals of “Idol Gives Back” was a serious ethical breach that the producers may live to regret.

They fell into the ethical fallacy the Scoreboard calls “the Saint’s License.” To quote from the “Rule Book” section:

This rationalization has probably caused more death and human suffering than any other. The words “it’s for a good cause” have been used to justify all sorts of lies, scams and mayhem. It is the downfall of the zealot, the true believer, and the passionate advocate that almost any action that supports “the Cause”, whether it be liberty, religion, charity, or curing a plague, is seen as being justified by the inherent rightness of the ultimate goal. Thus Catholic Bishops protected child-molesting priests to protect the Church, and the American Red Cross used deceptive promotions to swell its blood supplies after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Saint’s License allows charities to strong-arm contributors, and advocacy groups to use lies and innuendo to savage ideological opponents… 

…or a hit TV show to deceive its loyal viewers so it can raise more money.

Only because it was engaged in charity fundraising would American Idol dare try such a stunt. Imagine a show promoting a guest appearance from a major pop sensation and never having her appear after legions of her fans have tuned in. Imagine the Academy Awards announcing at the end of its typical 17 hour broadcast that it won’t give the “Best Film” Oscar until a special show next week. Imagine the White House announcing that the President was going to address the nation about a new Iraq policy, when the President really intended to talk about Social Security. The Idol “shock” scam was no different, but the producers think it is excusable because it involved charity.

They are wrong. Regardless of the good intentions, there is now genuine reason to doubt the show’s legitimacy and honesty. For all we know the voting results really were shocking, and the producers decided to skip a week in the hopes that another voting round would save one of their favorites from an untimely elimination. Before this stunt, I would have said such a scenario was extremely unlikely; now, I’m not so sure. The show lied about what was going to happen this week; everyone was led to believe that a contestant would be eliminated as usual. That means it could lie about anything else if it suited the producers’ objectives…whatever they are.

The producers seem to think that doubling up on the eliminations next week renders the deception harmless. But it could easily change the results dramatically. The bottom two vote getters in a combined two-week vote could easily be two different singers than the ones who would have been eliminated in separate votes. Idol didn’t just lie; it also changed its rules in the middle of the competition. No competition that does that can claim a shred of integrity.

The stock answer to any criticism of American Idol is “lighten up: it’s just a TV show.” This was also the argument given by the people who fixed the quiz shows in the 1950s. It didn’t wash then, and it doesn’t now. Any time you are responsible for something that people care about and invest emotional energy in, whether it is a presidential campaign, a baseball game or a television talent show, you have acquired an obligation to be fair and honest, and not to betray the trust of your constituents. Stupidly, the producers of American Idol forgot this.

While Idol was giving back, it gave its credibility away. It was a big mistake.

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