Famed—and infamous—talk show host Jerry Springer died yesterday at the age of seventy-nine after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. Jene Galvin, a family spokesperson and longtime friend of Springer’s, recalled how “Jerry’s ability to connect with people was at the heart of his success in everything he tried, whether that was politics, broadcasting or just joking with people on the street who wanted a photo or a word.”
Chances are, however, that most will remember Springer in a different light.
As Neil Genzlinger describes, Jerry Springer “went from a somewhat outlandish political career to an almost indescribably outlandish broadcasting career with ‘The Jerry Springer Show,’ which by the mid-1990s was setting a new standard for tawdriness on American television, turning the talk-show format into an arena for shocking confessions, adultery-fueled screaming matches and not infrequent fistfights.”
So which was the real Jerry Springer?
The answer seems to have been a bit of both.
From mayor to major TV star
By all accounts, Springer remained faithful to his Jewish heritage and, as his Rabbi describes, was someone who “never lost sight of his roots. He understood the great fortune that his family had in escaping Germany and ending up in England and then moving here.” He would routinely help emcee interfaith dialogues, meet with high school kids, and speak at local men’s events for his synagogue in Cincinnati.
Yet, the reason he was able to draw a crowd in doing so ties back to the public persona he developed across his adult life.
While Jerry Springer is known best for the show that bears his name, his first foray into the public eye came when he won a position on the Cincinnati City Council in 1971. He’d graduated with a law degree from Northwestern University a few years prior and believed that his future would be in politics. However, he resigned three years later after news broke that he’d hired a prostitute on at least two occasions at a Kentucky massage parlor.
Despite the controversy, he was back on the council the following year and would go on to serve as the city’s mayor from 1977–1978. He would remain in politics until, after a failed bid to become the state’s governor, he transitioned to television.
He joined WLWT-TV as a news commentator before moving up to anchor and won ten local Emmys during his time at the station. As a result, the station’s parent company—Multimedia Entertainment—helped him launch The Jerry Springer Show in 1991.
However, those early years were quite different from what the show eventually became.
His first season was initially so issues-oriented that the Los Angeles Times called it “an oppressively self-important talk hour.” But by 1993, he had begun to embrace a more shocking direction, with lead-ins like “Worshiping the Lord with snakes” and helping a young man choose a woman from behind a screen with whom he could lose his virginity (his eighteen-year-old sister was “one of the contestants”). And while Springer still tried to mix in serious discussions for a time, his course was set when—at the behest of new owner Universal—he was told, “From now on, only crazy.”
Springer would go on to master “crazy” over the course of almost thirty years and four thousand episodes, peaking in 1998 with a viewership of roughly eight million people.
The Jerry Springer Show and social media
For many, Jerry Springer came to symbolize the degradation of American morality.
His shows routinely highlighted and played to the worst impulses in human nature, allowing people to indulge in the shame of others from the privacy of their own homes. It’s important to note, however, that he did not create that desire in his audience. Rather, he gave it an outlet through which it could find release, even if just for a time.
Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that the peak of his show’s popularity came just before the dawn of social media. In the ensuing years, his show would lose much of its status because the kinds of videos and stories that defined its outlandish product were readily available on the internet.
That truth is important because it can be easy to look at the world around us today and believe that humanity has gone downhill in recent decades when the reality is that human depravity has not necessarily changed over that time. Rather, we just no longer have to tune in at a particular time of day to indulge it.
"The only explanation" for modern civilization
One of the chief dangers inherent to the normalization of sin—and Springer’s show did have a lasting impact in that regard—is that it loses its shock value. We become accustomed to the things that should make us recoil and accept the sins God’s word calls us to reject. Perhaps we never cross the line of committing those sins ourselves, but we certainly place ourselves in greater danger of doing so when we lose sight of how far they can drive us from the Lord.
At the same time, we should not be surprised when lost people act like lost people.
What Ronald Knox said of our society nearly a century ago still rings true today: “It is so stupid of modern civilization to have given up belief in the devil when he is the only explanation for it.”
To focus on sin and castigate the sinners while largely ignoring the real Enemy responsible for their fall is to risk driving those who need Jesus further away from his saving grace.
Is there a place for accountability and calling out sin when we see it? Absolutely.
But, as we reflect on the life and legacy of Jerry Springer, we need to remember that an audience entertained by the sins he marketed is unlikely to be shamed into turning to Christ as their Savior and Lord.
So instead of being shocked by the sin of the world, what if we strove to shock the world with God’s love and grace?
Jesus routinely surprised those his culture had written off as sinners beyond the reach of God’s mercy by acknowledging their sin but not defining them by it. Whether it was the woman at the well (John 4), Mary washing his feet (Matthew 26:6-13), or a host of other examples, those stories continue to stick with us today because we are drawn to the idea—however difficult to accept it may seem—that the Lord sees more in us than our worst mistakes.
Whom can you help to be shocked by God’s grace today?
Publication date: April 28, 2023
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Gustavo Caballero/Stringer
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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