Category: Reality television


No Love in Love and Hip Hop Atlanta: When Reality TV Gives Rise to a Real Lawsuit

On September 5, 2012, Mickey “Memphitz” Wright Jr., a former Jive Records executive, brought a cause of action for defamation in the United States Northern District of Georgia against Kimberly Michelle Pate, his former girlfriend, the owners of the VH1 network and the producers of the network’s hit show Love and Hip Hop Atlanta.  The defamation suit stems from allegations that were aired during an episode of the show in which Pate accused Wright of embezzlement and domestic physical abuse during their former relationship.

Love and Hip Hop Atlanta is a popular reality television show with a large fan base.  The show first aired in June 2012 with 1.9 million viewers and has only gotten more popular with each episode evidenced by the 4.4 million viewers watching the season finale on September 3, 2012.  These numbers represent the number of people who perhaps were exposed to these allegations made by Pate while watching the show.

A major issue in Wright’s suit for defamation is that he is a former record executive, and known to a considerable population in the music recording industry, so it must be determined whether or not he would be considered a public figure.  In Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts, the United States Supreme Court  stated “[a] ‘public figure’ who is not a public official may also recover damages for a defamatory falsehood whose substance makes substantial danger to reputation apparent…” and in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., the Court stated individuals who “by reason of the notoriety of their achievements or the vigor and success with which they seek the public’s attention, are properly classed as public figures.”  This classification is important because suits for defamation are considerably harder for a public figure plaintiff to win because he must show that the defendant made a false statement with “actual malice.”  To show Pate acted with actual malice, Wright must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that at the time the statements were made she knew them to be false or was reckless as to whether they were false or not.  To prove the owners of VH1 and the producers of the show acted with actual malice, Wright must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that at the time the statements were aired the defendants knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were true or not.  Another issue Wright may have to contend with is the fact that Pate did not actually say his name when the statements were made.  She simply referred to an unnamed former record executive.  Because Pate is a former R&B singer and thus in the recording industry herself, many people in the industry that knew of their relationship and watched the show were able to make the connection and subsequently, these allegations have been reported all over various news stations and websites specifically naming Wright as the purported offender.  According to Wright, this publicity has caused him emotional distress and the inability to make a higher income in the future due to the impairment to his reputation which is one of the elements he must prove to make his claim for defamation.

Wright is suing for $15 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages and must prove actual malice on the part of each defendant, particularly necessary in order to be awarded punitive damages in a defamation suit.  In Merco Joint Venture v. Kaufman, Merco, a wastewater disposal company, was shown in a bad light on a local television show broadcast by Tri State Broadcasting Company.  Merco brought suit for defamation against the reporter on the show, the producers of the show and Tri State, the owner of the television station itself.  The court addressed the responsibility of a broadcaster before a show is aired and stated that those responsible for the show’s actual content are more responsible for the content that is aired and it would be economically unfeasible for a broadcaster to monitor every feed that comes from a network source.  Furthermore, the court looked to evidence such as internal memorandum between the producers of the show, the show’s original version in relation to the edited broadcast version, and actual knowledge the reporter and producers of the show had regarding the content of what was being aired to conclude that a jury could reasonably find that the reporter and producers acted with “malicious intent” in shooting, editing, and producing the footage that was eventually aired, but not the broadcaster.

Therefore, it may be difficult for Wright to prove the owners of the VH1 network acted with actual malice if he cannot prove that it is their responsibility to be aware of the truthfulness of all content of every show that is aired on their network.  However, if Wright has evidence tending to show that his former girlfriend, through actual knowledge of the events, knew that the statements she made were false he could win his defamation suit against Pate and if he can show evidence that the producers of the show were aware that the statements made by Pate might be false or if they acted with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were false or not and edited the show in a manner that aired the statements anyway, he may have a viable defamation claim against the producers of the show as well.

Reality Television Therapy Sessions

 

Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a reality television show that follows the lives of the Kardashian family. Four of the children on the show are children of the late Robert Kardashian, attorney to O.J. Simpson during his infamous murder trial. The show follows the lives of three sisters—Kourtney, Kim, and Khloe—and their everyday struggles with work and family life. Additionally, the show chronicles the relationship between Kris and Bruce Jenner. Kris is the ex-wife of Robert Kardashian and mother to all the children on the show. Finally, the show also gives snippets of how normal and abnormal the lives are of the two youngest daughters—Kylie and Kendall—who are still in high school but also are beginning modeling and acting careers.

This past Sunday the episode began with a therapy session among Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, Rob, and their mother, Kris. The therapy session involved some serious issues of sibling rivalry because the other children felt their mother favored Kim over everyone else. Additionally, Robert thought his mother only cared about helping his sisters’ careers and not his career.  Several websites, such as Eonline.com and Gossipcop.com, have addressed Rob’s crying during the episode. However, none have addressed the ability to air sessions with a licensed therapist on television and the stars’ rights to keep some of the information private even though they have signed agreements to have any recording they participate in as part of their show. This practice seems to have become more common with reality television shows involving families, such as the Kardashians, or shows about individuals struggling with addictions, such as Intervention. More than likely anyone participating in such a gathering has signed a consent form to have their session recorded and later shown on television. However, therapy is meant to be a private matter and doctor-patient confidentiality is treated with the utmost respect in the court system. Due to the sensitive and often volatile nature of therapy sessions information often comes out that the individuals do not want known to the public.  To my knowledge, no one to date has sued a television company for airing information gained in a therapy session but recorded on camera for the show. However, the date may not be far off when a reality star will decide to challenge the ability of the television company to show information recorded in therapy sessions.

Incarceration: The Female Experience

The TLC show “Cellblock 6: Female Lockup” is a documentary-reality show which follows the female inmates in Gwinnett County Jail in Gwinnett County, Georgia. The show profiles various aspects of the incarceration experience from booking to release, but the most pervasive theme is the importance of the female bond. This show made me rethink images of prison scenes in movies where new inmates join gangs and make alliances for their own protection in a dog-eat-dog jail. The women in Gwinnett County are quick to help newcomers. In the episode entitled “Guilty… So You Think”, Tiffany, 24 year old pregnant mother of two, sits down with her new cellmate, Jo Ellen, and engages in a therapy-like session. Tiffany shares with her useful information on the practicalities of jail life and also how to adjust emotionally to her new life. These women, both mothers, bond over their love for their family. Later, Tiffany shows Jo Ellen how to do research information on her case in the jail’s law library.

Other inmates work together to help Deatrah, a fellow inmate, celebrate her birthday. The women surprise her with cards and a birthday cake which was made from crushed cookies and candy bars that had been repurposed to create a chocolate cake. Deatrah is later moved to tears when she receives a birthday card from her parents. Claiming that if she had only listened to her parents she would not have ended up in prison, she shares her story. Deatrah says that as a young woman she enrolled in college and was doing well but began to struggle with her sexuality. Fearing that her highly religious family would not accept her, she turned to drinking and developed an alcohol problem. After failing out of school, Deatrah spiraled out of control and was eventually arrested for armed robbery. At her hearing, Deatrah pled guilty claiming that it was important to her that she was not a liar. As a lesbian in jail, Deatrah has substantially more issues to deal with. Although a common victim of rumors and gossip amongst her fellow inmates, Deatrah stated that her main concern is with the staff. According to the Handbook of the Georgia Department of Corrections,  (pg. 27), romance between inmates is a strictly forbidden and  punishable offense. Deatrah claimed not to be romantically involved with anyone in jail but she fears being subjected to solitary confinement based on rumors or at the whim of a guard due to her openness about her homosexuality.

Of the seven women profiled in this episode, five of them have children. This is a frequent topic of conversation among the women who share memories and console one another since they miss their children and want to be part of their lives. Some women tell their children they are incarcerated, some lie to them, and others have children that are far too young to understand. None of them want their children to see them in jail, and most refuse to let their children visit.

Do not be fooled. This is not a white collar prison or a minimum security jail. According to the show, Gwinnett County Jail houses everyone from murders to parole violators. In this tightly-run ship, women spend 20 hours locked in their cells each day. Yet, these women do not show toughened exteriors but a supportive network for each other and those who enter the walls of Gwinnett County Jail. These women depend on each other to survive this highly emotional experience, and although it most probably exists, there are no traces of bickering or “cat fights.” Above all else, these women have learned to survive through the bonds of sisterhood.


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