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The news that Josh Duggar has admitted to molesting numerous children (including some of his sisters) 12 years ago is a dramatic demonstration of the fundamental hypocrisy that underpins so much reality TV. Josh, the eldest of the children filmed as part of TLC’s huge hit 19 Kids and Counting, has said he has “acted inexcusably” and was “deeply sorry” for his “wrongdoing.”
He had been investigated for allegedly fondling the breasts and genitalia of underage girls when he was a teen. In this time-frame narrative, the incidents would have occurred before the Kids and Counting series (which began in 2008 as 17 Kids and Counting) began airing on TLC.
Nevertheless, TLC has a big problem here. Coming less than a year after the network’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo had to deal with a child-molester scandal, the Duggar revelations are potentially as bad or worse on every level. There are questions not just of harm done to victims, but also of the responsibility of parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, as well as TLC, to have acknowledged this situation at some point in the show’s history. After all, if you set yourself up as an up-close and personal true documentation of family life, doesn’t an event as major as this demand some coverage?
The reverberations don’t end there. Josh has resigned from his job at the Family Research Council, the ultra-conservative organization whose leader, Tony Perkins, regularly appears on Fox News and other outlets promoting stronger family ties and voicing disapproval of things like abortion rights, gay marriage, and LGBT rights legislation. Josh served on the Council’s political action committee, and the last thing a fund-raising PAC wants is this kind of bad publicity.
Josh was reportedly investigated by the Springdale Police Department in Arkansas, but no charges were brought against him. Instead, Josh has said his parents “arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling.” He said that if he had “continued down this wrong road I would end up ruining my life.” Gee, no kidding — to say nothing of the lives of your alleged victims, pal.
There seems no possible way TLC would not have known of this appalling situation. (UPDATE: TLC has pulled the show from its schedule, saying, “We are deeply saddened and troubled by this heartbreaking situation, and our thoughts and prayers are with the family and victims at this difficult time.”) The Kids and Counting production crew has spent so much time with this clan over the years, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ve not heard discussions of this major event in the family’s history.
This is the recurring problem with reality TV: The very source of its appeal — this isn’t fiction, it’s real life, true and unscripted! — is what makes it more vulnerable when confronted with scandal. When an actor in a scripted TV show is accused of a crime, that becomes something in his personal life that may or may not affect how the public views the character that actor portrays. But in a show like 19 Kids and Counting, the real people are the characters, and vice versa. How does one look at Josh now, and not wonder about his actions? How does one look at the cheery faces of Jim Bob and Michelle and not think about the degree of their complicity in keeping this “storyline” — for that’s what all real events become in this TV genre — suppressed?
We as an audience and as human beings can move beyond disgust and have pity or sympathy or feelings of forgiveness for Josh and his parents — that’s what this family’s religion would offer as an alternative to disapproval or hatred. But just as TLC’s Jon and Kate Plus 8 underwent a sea-change in the way it was viewed once the Gosselins divorced, so the likely truth is that from this point on, a big segment of the Kids and Counting audience is going to tune in for more prurient reasons: To look and gaze at those kids and wonder who has been wounded by these alleged acts. And to wonder just how much longer these reality TV stars — held up for years as beacons of pure family values — can be tolerated by viewers.