Not sure when the lines got crossed, but at some point (probably around the time that America elected a reality star as president), reality television and American politics began spinning on the same axis. As such, lies, deceitfulness, spin and aggressive PR campaigns became the norm for both.
Earlier this month, disgraced high-powered attorney and Real Husband of Beverly Hills Tom Girardi was indicted for allegedly embezzling client funds. If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
On Feb. 17, Real Housewife of Salt Lake City Jen Shah is required to surrender herself to federal prison, where she will serve a 78-month sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Shah engaged in a sophisticated scheme to defraud elderly victims of their life savings.
Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice and her then-husband Joe Giudice both famously went to prison for, as the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of New Jersey put it, “committing a string of crimes as part of a long-running financial fraud conspiracy.” Last November, reality stars Todd and Julie Chrisley were sentenced to 12 and 7 years, respectively, for bank fraud and other crimes. Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of “Jersey Shore” fame went to federal prison for tax fraud.
Millions and millions of viewers tune in to watch as criminal fraudsters, shrouded in apparent wealth, entertain them with charisma, conflict and (attempted) humor. In 2023 — where our politics seem to imitate reality television more and more each day — it’s important to take a critical lens to the impact that two decades of watching certain reality stars degrade our criminal legal system has had on our culture.
It’s not random that the offenses these reality stars are convicted of have one common thread. They involve lying: lies to the government, to clients, to vulnerable old folks — and lies to the viewers watching at home. In the law, we call crimes involving deceit or dishonesty “crimen falsi,” and they are accorded special deference in the Federal Rules of Evidence to impeach a witness’ character in court.
Rightly or wrongly, the underlying justification for this is that such crimes speak to the trustworthiness of the individual who committed them.
The truth is that many reality television stars are not truthful. This is, in large part, because they face no formal external accountability mechanism that would encourage telling inconvenient truths. In fact, criminal conviction is the rare reality check on the false narratives crafted by producers and the television personalities their shows depend on.
However, as the so-called “canceled” have learned, the Federal Rules of Evidence don’t apply in the court of public opinion. Reality TV criminals know this, and they have weaponized the fundamentally false premise of “reality” TV to their advantage, at great cost to the public’s grip on actual reality. If Donald Trump showed us the power of platforming lies, over the last two decades, other reality TV stars have trained us to believe those lies.
“Attorneys for the Southern District of New York aren’t on television every week sharing their side of the story, but Jen Shah sure was.”
While viewers may approach reality TV with perfunctory skepticism, even the most cynical fan is watching for entertainment. The viewer’s guard is down. Andy Cohen, a reality star himself and the mind behind the “Real Housewives” franchise, even invites viewers of his show to imbibe intoxicating substances while watching. Viewers don’t necessarily consume reality TV with the critical eye they may bring to the news.
Most reality stars facing prosecution stay on TV throughout their legal battles. In fact, multiple seasons of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” and “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” all focus on the legal battles of their implicated or indicted cast members. After all, it makes for great television. But why would a guilty person agree to film while under federal investigation for a crime they know they committed? Narcissism aside, the platform is just that powerful.
Staying on reality television allows these stars to control the narrative in the court of public opinion, while the government pursuing charges is largely defenseless in that arena. Attorneys for the Southern District of New York aren’t on television every week sharing their side of the story, but Jen Shah sure was. The format of modern reality shows almost always includes the “confessional,” a straight-to-camera shot where the featured individual is free to monologue without pushback. This allows reality stars to repeat often-false talking points over and over again for months. Unlike in the political arena, most news outlets do not invest in reporting on these stories, so the lies reach a much greater audience than any government statement might.
Additionally, reality stars know what the audience hasn’t seen, but more importantly, they know what the audience has seen. Though these shows are heavily edited, reality stars can select a set of facts they know viewers have already watched on television (with their own eyes!) to build uniquely compelling narratives. These threads appear truer than a typical explanation because there is ostensibly “video evidence” proving such a fact pattern. They can then act in accordance with this narrative on the show — a performance of innocence.
We saw just how easy it is to turn real situations into a stage when C-Span cameras were given free rein in Congress in early January. Moreover, the stars are generously compensated for being on their shows and can continue to maintain their fan base. Keeping viewers on their side is a critical step in mounting their return post-incarceration, as Teresa Giudice demonstrated with her return to “Housewives” after prison. She has profited from the carceral stint beyond just the show, selling a book about her stay, getting a television special, “Teresa Checks In,” and more.
Last month, Chris Wallace grilled Bravo executive Cohen in a revealing exchange following Jen Shah’s guilty plea. “You’re on the record… saying that you hope she would get no jail time,” Wallace noted. “And the question I have is, ‘Why would you take her side against the thousands of people she defrauded, including a lot of elderly?’”
Cohen isn’t alone, though. In fact, there is still such a fan base for Shah that she has taken to selling “#FreeJenShah” T-shirts ahead of her incarceration.
We, the viewers, have lost the plot, and it’s not just because we consume daily lies from MAGA political leaders. The American public has been trained to accept lies as entertainment. We’ve been taught that charisma is enough of a reason to excuse the awful, even criminal, behaviors of our favorite reality stars. It’s no wonder, then, that frauds with real power like Trump and recently elected Rep. George Santos think we’re such easy marks.