A Michigan jury yesterday awarded $25 million to the family of a gay man murdered by a fellow guest on the Jenny Jones TV show, in a case that has sparked debate about homophobia, talk-show exploitation and the media's role in promoting violence.
Legal experts said the jury was the first to hold the producers of a TV program negligent for the behavior of an interview guest. Although Warner Bros., distributor of the Jones show, said it would appeal the decision, lawyers for the company and other observers said the judgment would have "a chilling effect" on the format and staging of talk and news shows.
Calling it a "profoundly disturbing verdict," Warner Bros. attorney Zazi Pope said talk-show and news producers would have to limit elements of surprise on their shows to ensure that guests don't become angry. Under the theory endorsed by the jury, she said, "surprise could lead to humiliation, which could lead to violence," which could lead to a lawsuit.
Others, however, called the decision a just result for a medium that enriches itself at the expense of vulnerable people. "Let's hope this ruling is a wake-up call to the media that when you play with fire, you get burned," said Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "A ruling that denounces media sensationalism [and] the conviction of a man who killed based on fear and prejudice are not mutually exclusive."
The 8-1 decision comes amid a renewed public discussion about the entertainment industry's role in inciting violence. Attorneys for Warner Bros. lamented that the case was decided in the wake of public revulsion over the killings of 15 people at a high school in Littleton, Colo., two weeks ago. That tragedy spurred hearings this week on what Senate sponsors called "the marketing of violence to children" via popular music, movies and TV programs. Also, President Clinton has called for a White House "summit" on youth violence next week.
"The media has become an unfortunate scapegoat," Pope said. "It's convenient to blame the media instead of accepting individual responsibility."
"The Jenny Jones Show," which airs weekdays on WTTG-TV, the Fox affiliate in Washington, is among the most popular nationally syndicated TV talk programs. Despite a general decline in talk-show ratings recently, Jones's program averages an audience of nearly 4 million households. Her show, and others like it, typically features confrontational situations, often in which guests are ambushed with embarrassing personal revelations, such as extramarital affairs.
The case decided yesterday stems from a Jones program that was taped in March 1995 but never aired, except as part of news accounts of the ensuing trials. The show on "secret admirers" featured Scott Amedure, a 32-year-old gay man, who revealed a crush on Jonathan Schmitz, who later said he was heterosexual.
Three days after the taping, Schmitz, apparently embarrassed by the revelation, drove to Amedure's home in Oakland County, outside Detroit, and killed him with a shotgun blast. Schmitz, now 28, admitted the killing, but his second-degree murder conviction was overturned on a technicality. He remains in jail, awaiting a new trial.
Amedure's family later sued Warner Bros. and the show's producer, Telepictures Productions, both owned by Time Warner Inc. The family sought $71.5 million in damages, arguing that the producers were partly to blame for Amedure's death.
After seven hours of deliberation, the jury agreed the show was negligent, and ordered the companies to pay $5 million for pain and suffering, $20 million for the loss of Amedure's companionship to his family and $6,500 for funeral expenses.
Jones, who was not a defendant, testified for three days last month at the trial in Pontiac, Mich. According to one wire-service news account, she told jurors that her program was "a very lighthearted talk show. . . . I think the audience relates to it. I think most everybody at some point have had crushes in our lives. Some people choose to reveal the crush on TV."
In a statement yesterday, Jones said she was "shocked and saddened" by the verdict. "However, the only real tragedy here is that Scott Amedure lost his life," she said. "I refuse to lose my faith in the law and in the people I work with, even in the face of this outrageous judgment."
Attorneys for the program pointed out that Schmitz agreed to come on the show, even after being told in advance that his secret admirer could be a man or a woman. They said the producers couldn't have known that Schmitz had a history of mental problems, was an alcoholic and had a thyroid condition -- all of which might have caused him to react violently to Amedure's revelation.
But Amedure family lawyer Geoffrey Fieger -- who has represented suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian and is himself a Detroit radio talk-show host -- argued that Jones and Warner Bros. were motivated only by ratings and cared nothing about the guests' welfare. Fieger denied the defendants' contention that Schmitz might have killed Amedure because the two had had a sexual encounter.
In closing arguments this week, he asked the jurors to "be a voice of justice for us all against an industry full of empty souls and absent consciences."
Floyd Abrams, an attorney who has represented broadcasters in First Amendment cases, said yesterday that the verdict will stop TV producers from putting news and talk-show guests into potentially volatile situations.
"The logic of this case sweeps well beyond the Jenny Jones show," Abrams said. "Indeed, it sweeps beyond talk shows. It relates to any situation in which a [guest or news source] is put in a position where he will react in an unpredictable fashion after being surprised by something being said."
Abrams called the suit "preposterous" and predicted it would be overturned on First Amendment grounds. Talk show hosts Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera declined to comment on the verdict.
Robert Lichter, who heads the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonprofit group that analyzes media content, said the Jones jury wanted to send a strong message to Hollywood and the news media.
"Whenever juries get a chance, they say [to the news and entertainment industries], `We don't like you, we don't like what you're doing, and we want to make you pay for it.' This jury just levied a tax on TV's public humiliation industry. When you draw ratings from suffering, they'll make you pay for it."
Lichter said talk shows like the Jones and Springer programs "have a loyal audience, but a much larger body finds them repugnant. The juries aren't thinking about the First Amendment. They're thinking, `How can we teach these scumballs a lesson?' "
CAPTION: Host Jenny Jones said the verdict left her "shocked and saddened."
CAPTION: Frank Amedure Sr., left, and attorney Geoffrey Fieger after a jury ordered producers of "Jenny Jones" to pay $25 million in Amedure's son's death.