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August 17, 2000

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Karen Needed to Be Home If the Marriage Can Be Saved

        I deeply, sincerely hope we didn't just see three minutes of unleashed emotion and affection before the CBS cameras and next week read of a divorce filing. No matter what you or I or anyone thinks of Karen Fowler's last six weeks, her marriage deserves every chance to be saved---if possible---outside the glare of network television.
       That's going to be a difficult chore. If she so chooses, there's the obligatory visit with Bryant Gumbel on The Early Show, which I would eschew if I had just won the $500,000 George Boswell will ultimately take home. The tabloid shows will surely be calling. Entertainment Tonight dragged her older kids into the fray, which is a subject for a few paragraphs later. Surely, her home newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, will ask for her time.
       I'm on record. I didn't care one iota for William ("I'm here to make you confront your fears") Collins or Jean ("I'm going to have a war with Brittany over Josh") Jordan. However, the first night when Karen hit the Red Room and began trashing her husband Tom, I was ready for her to go home. Right then and there.
       I said so in an interview I gave to The Indianapolis Star. As I told the reporter, we've seen this kind of conflict exploited on daytime television by everyone from Phil Donahue to Ricki Lake for 15 years. Yet, as bad as they are, those vignettes are one-hour snippets to stimulate ratings and we usually never see those people again. We are short-term voyeurs to their dysfunction but we never learn more than a surface yelling and screaming before a host who rakes in millions.
       Those who have invested any significant time in Big Brother (and thankfully, far fewer have than with Survivor and on weekend nights, reruns of Mike Stokey's Pantomime Quiz would probably fare better), know its cast by name. We see their edited personalities, their idiosyncracies and, despite CBS's convoluted efforts to keep the housemates as one-name characters, their relationships.
       However, as I told the Indianapolis paper, I'm terribly discomforted with the message Karen's entire scenario sends. People run away from problems every day but that does not make them go away. In Karen's case, I'm dumbfounded how a mother of four---no matter how stressful or difficult her home situation had become---could possibly believe a solution would surface by leaving home for a network television series which has only the loosest connection with a game show.
       A quick way to a half-million? Only one can win it and, surely, Karen and the other housemates have to see only good-ol-boy George Boswell having a personality hemorrhage is going to keep him from winning the jackpot with the viewer votes.
       A measure of revenge on Tom? Well, she used her time effectively in that department. However, she also managed to do anything but ingratiate herself with the audience with that tactic.
       A sudden loss of perspective? Did this woman not have some smidgen of an idea of the residual effect this may have on her children, whether the marriage recovers or fails? I don't care how well-adjusted her kids are (and her daughter Jill's interviews make me scratch my head), having this episode aired in Peoria, Tallahassee, Bismarck and Portland, rather than in the privacy of their lives in Columbus, Ind., is at very best an emotional misdemeanor against the children.
       An escape? That's the most logical guess. A woman at midlife feeling her life equating an emotional cave-in and, in her mind, the only way to deal with it is to escape. Yet, she revealed in her interview Wednesday night she felt no escape because, as much as she grew to love them, everywhere she went, people were around.
       My father has counseled with dozens of couples experiencing marital strife over the past 50 years. In many of those situations, the key difficulty has been one or both parties running away from the problems rather than confronting with at least an open mind toward solutions. The last thing he, or any qualified counselor---likely including Dr. Joyce Brothers---would suggest is taking problems to a one-sided national forum of the likes of Big Brother.
       Three situations, in addition to the sadness of a troubled marriage, are troubling from a broadcasting standpoint, in my opinion. I had the distinct impression over six weeks, we were seeing a single-sided attempt at lynching a husband without a fair forum for him to respond. We heard Karen describe the marriage as loveless, portray Tom Fowler as a sometimes verbally vicious father and suggest she had told one of her daughters to be ready to call authorities to Tom if he overstepped his disciplinary boundaries. Big Brother is not a news broadcast (even with the dubious addition of Julie Chen). However, had this been a journalistic endeavor, someone would and should have been fired. Using a soundbite with Tom in the package to introduce Karen in the show's opener and those taped clips at the end of week one was hardly balance. She had night after night for six weeks to make her case. The highly-exploitative and tasteless interview ET did with her two oldest children five weeks ago further stacked the deck against Tom.
       I've never met Tom or Karen Fowler. Somehow, I don't think their home would have been a pleasant place to live in recent months or years. However, any objective observer in most marital divisions, except where a clear-cut case of spouse battering can be proven, knows the parties usually have more shared blame than the Clampetts ate possums on The Beverly Hillbillies. Tom may be guilty of all of the things Karen accused in her six weeks on the Studio City lot. However, to have tried Tom publicly on national television night after night in the fashion we saw was the equivalent of a court case with no defense attorney.
       That, in itself, makes me more disturbed than ever at CBS News lending its name to this broadcast. I don't care if Julie Chen is just a morning newsreader, Les Moonves and his news president Andrew Heyward can't have it both ways, despite their spin to the contrary---and they both know it's spin to say morning news programs "have more leeway" with their personnel. If Julie Chen is CBS News, which still is her employer, she is Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Lesley Stahl, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace, Scott Pelley and Erin Moriarty. You can't compartmentalize television news, no matter how the line has been blurred with entertainment over the last decade. She's either a journalist or an entertainment host and, clearly, presiding over a potentially decadent marriage is hardly the role of an objective network correspondent or anchor.
       However, the third and most troubling result of this sordid scenario is how starkly revealing this reflects the crumbling of our society. To watch a rent-a-crowd stand and applaud what I hope was not a short-term postponement to a permanent heartbreak was almost vulgar. To see a television network exploit a genuinely dysfunctional marriage which was not scripted entertainment and reap millions from it in advertising revenues is a virtual measure of financial rape. This was a private matter made nauseatingly public and enough fingers can be pointed with accuracy on all fronts as to the blame: Karen, CBS, Endemol----and, frankly, the viewers who find this all riveting entertainment. Wednesday night, when Karen and Tom hugged and kissed at the end of Big Brother is what is commonly defined as a "television moment." Yet, anyone who thinks Big Brother is real life is clueless. Karen Fowler's real life is only beginning again with her escape from that house and the baggage she's put off for a month and a half.
       A lot of ink was spilled when this concept began as to whether this would bring George Orwellian prophecies to life. I don't think so. No, particularly with the Fowlers' story, we're far closer to the prophecies of the late Paddy Chayefsky when he created Howard Beale in the movie "Network." Chayefsky, one of television's brilliant writers of the Golden Era, left the medium in the 1960s as a result of the very fears he felt of television's direction. If you've never seen "Network," rent it. You'll see a lot of Big Brother in it. Only at the time it was made, a lot of us laughed and laughed hard. We could never picture television becoming what it inevitably has.
       Let me reiterate at least one note of hope, if any exists. I sincerely hope the Fowlers' emotions at 9:50 Eastern time Wednesday night were not a recreation of what we saw in the legendary 1960 final episode of the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, where Lucy and Ricky Ricardo kissed for the cameras for the last time and the next day, Lucille Ball filed for divorce from Desi Arnaz.
       I hope if any tithe of a chance exists of salvaging the Fowlers' marriage exists, it can be found. I hope Karen, Tom and the entire family can receive extended counseling which can heal the wounds they have endured. I hope both of these people as husband and wife, which they still are, can search inside themselves, admit their own flaws and point their strengths toward solutions. Finally, as a person of faith, I hope they can all find a faith which will bond them together as a family unit. In a day when it's increasingly popular in public circles to trash faith---particularly on network television, I still believe it to be a place to reach when sometimes no other answer exists. Too much to hope for? Perhaps. But not impossible. They now have the power to write their own script. A script in real life, not that of the producers of a rather debauched summer television show.

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