'Survivor' and '60 Minutes' — Reality Programming that's not Really Real

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I'm shocked, shocked, that the executive producer of "Survivor," CBS's top-rated reality program, staged some scenes in order to get prettier camera angles. I'm stunned, absolutely stunned that extras re-enacted a swimming race so that the aerial shot wouldn't be spoiled by those pesky camera crews.

On the bulletin board by my desk, I have two news photos from the Reagan years. One shows Ronald Reagan, in cowboy hat and boots, sitting astride a horse, looking toward the horizon. The second picture shows the same scene, but the picture is taken from twenty yards back. It shows Ronald Reagan, in cowboy hat and boots, sitting astride a horse looking off into the horizon — surrounded by 25 jostling photographers.

Which is the reality? For most Americans, it would be the picture of Reagan by himself on the prairie and of the Survivor swimmers struggling down river. But of course, the real reality was how each image was cleverly manipulated to seem authentic, genuine. That's the reality we don't usually see.

In fact, there's not a whole lot of difference between "Survivor" and television news programs like "60 Minutes" or "Dateline." Television magazine shows are reality programming, too, and they have the same interest in drama and narrative that "Survivor" does. They wouldn't survive without it.

News programs, like "reality" programs, are not after reality but verisimilitude; they're not necessarily after the truth, but the appearance of truth. News magazine shows cut and manipulate "reality" in the same ways as "Survivor": they heighten tension and drama, they play up discord and fights, and they eliminate details that slow down their story.

I find that I can't watch many of these shows because I just feel too manipulated by music and artful cutting and sententious narrators. But I did watch the "60 Minutes II" show on former Senator Bob Kerrey. I don't know what happened that night in the Mekong Delta thirty years ago, but I do know that "60 Minutes II" ham-handedly heightened the drama and tension of that report. Remember, they don't have a story if it's just Dan Rather interviewing a thoughtful, penitent veteran about the terrible things that war makes a man do. They do have a story if they put Bob Kerrey on trial, which is precisely what they did do.

"60 Minutes" thrives on the Perry Mason moment, something that rarely happens in real life but can be forced to happen in "reality" programming. They made the story seems as though it were a mano-a-mano fight between Kerrey and one of his ex-squad mates. In fact, Kerrey and five of his squad mates had the same story; only one man differed. And that's whom they interviewed.

Three times in the show, CBS referred to villager Pham Thi Lanh, as an "eyewitness," conferring a sense of accuracy on what she said. But who knows whether or not she was really there? After talking to CBS, she recanted, telling TIME magazine she hadn't actually seen any of the killings. Not to mention the fact that her memories are surely colored by thirty years of propaganda.

Just this week, New York State's highest court decided to allow psychologists to tell juries about the large body of scientific evidence suggesting that eyewitnesses very often get things completely wrong. Witnesses under stress usually do get things wrong. That's reality, not reality programming.

Yes, "60 Minutes" and "Survivor" claim to depict reality. But everyone knows what reality really is. It's when you're up at 3 a.m. with a sick child. It's when your job has been eliminated due to corporate cutbacks. It's when you're sitting with a pencil in your mouth trying to figure out how much you owe in taxes. That's reality, and there's never a camera around to record it. And I'm afraid there were no cameras on that dark night thirty years ago in the Mekong Delta.