Next on Jenny: Appeal

  • It was what is known in the talk-show business as an ambush. The Jenny Jones Show brought Jonathan Schmitz on the air in 1995 to be surprised by a "secret crush." When the crush turned out to be a man, Scott Amedure, an unstable Schmitz three days later shot his onetime friend to death. Amedure's family sued the show, and last week it was Jenny Jones that got ambushed--by a $25 million jury verdict.

    It's a stretch to blame a talk show for a murder committed later by a guest. But the Amedures argued it was the show's recklessness that set the crime in motion. They contended that the producers should have screened the guests enough to know that Schmitz had a history of mental illness, and the show should have realized that the humiliation of being surprised by a gay crush on TV might send an emotionally fragile person like Schmitz over the edge. The jury agreed. (Schmitz is scheduled to be retried for the murder in August; a 1996 conviction was reversed on appeal.)

    Critics of daytime talk shows hailed the hefty verdict as a stinging rebuke to trash television. Amedure family attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who made his name defending euthanasia doctor Jack Kevorkian, insisted that it sent a message to "renegade outlaw talk shows" to clean up their act. "If you wish to engage in these types of shows, at least be forthright," he said. "Tell the people what they're going to get involved in, tell them you're going to be talking about lurid, obscene sexual fantasies, and make sure you don't involve mentally ill people who could later strike out."

    The defense presented evidence Schmitz was in fact told that the crush could be a man or a woman--and that he said either would be O.K. And both Amedure and Donna Riley, a friend of both men, willingly appeared on the show. If neither of them thought it would cause Schmitz to snap, the defense argued, how could the Jenny Jones Show have foreseen it?

    The verdict could have implications for more than just TV talk shows. Even mainstream journalists are in the business of presenting people to the world in a light they might not choose for themselves. Newspapers dig up corruption among politicians. Magazines report on celebrities' arrests and substance-abuse problems. If the media can be held responsible for humiliating someone and driving him or her to criminal actions, this verdict could open the floodgates to a lot of lawsuits against more traditional media.

    The defendants, which include the show itself and Warner Bros. (which, like TIME, is owned by Time Warner), have said they will appeal. There's a good chance they could be successful. Appellate courts tend to be more protective than juries of the media--which is why about 80% of jury verdicts in libel cases end up getting reversed.