'The View' Meets The Unvarnished

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

By the rules of modern celebrity, it really was an unconscionable betrayal. Star Jones Reynolds had the impudence, the nerve, the unmitigated gall to do what no one would remotely expect a celebrity in her position to do: Tell the truth.

No wonder that Barbara Walters, head-celebrity-in-charge at the estrogenous daytime talk show "The View," reacted as if Star had marched up and punched her in the nose. "It is becoming uncomfortable for us to pretend that everything is the same at this table," Walters said mournfully in her postmortem last Wednesday on Star's act of treason. "Therefore, regrettably, Star will no longer be on this program."

Jones Reynolds's contract ran through August, but the ABC network has already erased any trace of her from the show's Web site, the way Soviet leaders used to airbrush Leon Trotsky and other discarded idols out of photographs. One of the nine-year-old show's founding mothers has now officially become a nonperson.

As everyone knows by now, Jones Reynolds's crime was to tell viewers last Tuesday morning that "The View" was "moving in another direction" and that she would not be returning for the 10th season. She told People magazine that ABC had decided not to renew her contract and that she felt as if she were being fired. Which she was.

Walters, immortalized by "Saturday Night Live" as "Baba Wawa," is a genuine legend, or at least used to be. She pioneered the way for generations of women in television journalism and was renowned for her ability as an interviewer, her knack for squeezing truth out of subjects inclined to prevaricate and dissemble. She is co-executive producer of "The View" and still works as a correspondent for ABC News. So why did Baba go ballistic when Star offered up a newsy little piece of truth?

It's true that the surprise announcement was premature -- the plan had been to break the news on Thursday, not Tuesday. But spontaneity is supposed to be part of the show's formula. The reason seems to be that Jones Reynolds decided not to act the way a celebrity is supposed to act and make up a lie about why she was leaving.

"We told her that she could say whatever she wanted about why she was leaving and that we would back her up," Walters said the next day, explaining to viewers why Jones Reynolds was basically dead to her. "We worked closely with her representatives, and we gave her time to look for another job. And we hoped that she would announce it here on the program and leave with dignity. But Star made another choice."

So there you have it, a key to the unwritten code of celebrity behavior.

Everyone now agrees that Jones Reynolds was indeed fired, but it never crosses anyone's mind in Celebrity World to publicly acknowledge that fact. Actually, that's increasingly true in the real world too -- employers often allow the dismissed to concoct face-saving cover stories. But real-world employers don't react the way Walters did when someone calls an ax an ax, because only in Celebrity World is it unthinkable not to disguise a firing as something else. If nothing more original comes to mind, the victim must at least announce a sudden yearning to spend more time with his or her family.

In Celebrity World, the details of the cover story are worked out by "representatives" -- I have my people call your people, or you have yours call mine -- and the public announcement of the agreed-upon untruth is a moment of great "dignity."

Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth when not compelled to do so by law enforcement subpoena threatens the very foundations of Celebrity World. Think of the tabloid-fodder celebrity "relationships" arranged by clever publicists that would be exposed for what they are. Think of the extended "vacations" that celebrities actually spend recovering from plastic surgery or dealing with that stubborn substance-abuse problem. If celebrities began telling the truth, would the whole celebrity-worship industry collapse?

It's not as if Jones Reynolds, who is an attorney, doesn't know the Celebrity World code of conduct. She misled viewers about her dramatic weight loss, and even now will say only that it was aided by some mysterious "medical intervention." The way she turned her wedding into a freebie-filled extravaganza, she now admits, was over the top even by celebrity standards.

But the way she played her dismissal was flat-out brilliant. Jones Reynolds put herself at the center of the big celebrity story of the week, while Baba & Co. were on the periphery, sounding a bit patronizing and vindictive.

Star did it with truth. What a concept.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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