Jenny Jones Verdict Puts Media On Hot Seat

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PONTIAC, Mich.: Jerry Springer had better watch his back. A Michigan jury found "The Jenny Jones Show" and producer Warner Brothers (corporate sibling of TIME Daily) negligent in the killing of a guest and awarded the victim's family $25 million in damages. The plaintiff's lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger (yes, Kevorkian's Geoffrey Fieger) said that when the talk show lured a mentally ill Jonathan Schmitz onto the show to meet his secret admirer and then confronted him with a gay man, the show's producers "did everything in this case except pull the trigger." TIME legal correspondent Adam Cohen says that if humiliation is now actionable, "the talk show business -- and maybe the news media along with it -- is in the hot seat now."

By the verdict's logic, the Jones show should have conducted background checks and psychological evaluations to determine if Schmitz could be embarrassed into murder. That's a heavy burden for a genre that's essentially in the embarrass-the-wacko business, and an even heavier one for, say, a news outfit that uncovers a politician's personal perversion. Cohen doubts it'll hold up on appeal, but he senses that the Michigan jury spoke to a backlash against the Springer-ization of America. "It's an indication that people may be fed up, especially on the heels of Monica, with the excesses of these shows," he says. "Of course, they're not exactly tuning out either."