In 1996, William Wagner, a gay student at Fayetteville High School, was the victim of a savage beating – Months later, he was one of the guests on the Ricki Lake show, in which it became apparent that the producers were hoping to provoke a confrontation between gay guests and a young man who had harassed another young man because he was gay.

This is included in my book, Ozark Mosaic.

Playing with Dynamite 
Tabloid TV and the search for confrontation

Tabloid television – we’ve all watched it. Where do they get their guests? Are there really that many incestuous Nazi Librarians living in Milwaukee? After some recent unwelcome publicity, some tabloid talk shows have attempted to become more respectable, though one Fayetteville woman and her son recently discovered that even with the best of intentions, some tabloid talk shows can’t resist the art of provocation, pitting one guest against another.
Late last year William Wagner, an openly homosexual Fayetteville High School student, was badly beaten outside a Fayetteville Laundromat. Since that time, both William and his mother, Carolyn, have become ardent defenders of gay youth. To that end they recently found themselves invited to appear on Ricki Lake’s nationally syndicated talk show.
The treatment they received and the general atmosphere surrounding the show confirmed their worst suspicions about tabloid talk shows.
The invitation came at the behest of Kevin Jennings of the New York office of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educational Network (GLSEN). The proposed show with talk show host Ricki Lake, was in conjunction with National Coming Out Day (October 11). Jennings was contacted by the program’s producers in hopes that he might know of a young person coming out with supportive parents. He contacted Carolyn Wagner.
Flown to New York at the show’s expense, they were put up in a hotel, after being picked up by a limousine at the airport.
Once at the studio, they discovered a lack of preparation on the part of Lake and her producers, even though Lake is said to be a supporter of gay rights. Wagner feels that producers emphasized incidents from particular situations which were guaranteed to be more dramatic.
Another panelist on the program was the mother of Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian who recently came “out” on her ABC situation comedy.
Also appearing on the panel with the Wagners were two young men from Stockton, California. Luke William, they had been the victims of taunts, harassment, and physical assaults, though the assaults were not as severe as William had faced. In true tabloid television fashion, one of their harassers was also invited on the program. Wagner says that he made no eye contact with anyone, and that he obviously felt out of place.
In fact, much of the focus of the program seemed to be gearing towards confrontation in general by focusing on sensationalism. The producers did a lot of coaching before the show, setting the general tone. Carolyn Wagner feels that the sensationalistic atmosphere blew everything out of proportion.
Wagner says that, “They wanted Willy to say certain things to this bully, and to say certain things to these other kids, but he wouldn’t do it, so they took him off the panel. The producers said they wanted to ‘educate’ the young man, and that they wanted plenty of “emotion.”
The young bully cited the Bible – specifically the Sodom and Gomorrah story – to justify his actions. William responded by quoting the Bible back at the youth; at the break, one of the producers came over and said, “Don’t talk about the Bible.”
Wagner says that the audience was supportive of the kids who had been harassed. In all, Carolyn and William Wagner spent a scant few minutes on the panel.
At the end of the show the young bully from Stockton was “persuaded” to shake hands with the boys he had harassed. Carolyn Wagner says, “From his body language it was obvious he did this under protest. All I could imagine in my mind was when these kids get back to California this guy’s peer group would rib him that he shook hands with the ‘queers.’ I don’t doubt there will be some problems in Stockton, California right now.”
Prior to the show there is a big buildup, but once at the studio, everyone is separated. Wagner says that a lot of coaching and prompting was done. Wagner says they wanted her to talk as well –  she feels they wanted her to verbally confront a mother who had made her son move out after he came out to his parents.
But that story wasn’t quite what the program portrayed; after talking with the woman, Wagner realized that the woman loved her son very much.
After the show, microphones were unhooked and they were all ushered out quickly. “They work real hard to get you out of there real quick. There is no closure, no discussion . . . they are trying to direct real people in real situations. When you start trying to direct and force issues, then you are playing with dynamite as far as I’m concerned.” Wagner tried to warn the producers, “These kid are more fragile than your average teenager.”
Thinking about what may lay ahead in California, Wagner says, “I’ll be very surprised if one of these kids doesn’t get physically hurt.”
Fayetteville psychologist Dr. Joanie Connors spoke with the Ozark Gazette about the exploitive nature of such programs. She says, “They don’t generally encourage reconciliation.” She says that incidents where antagonists shake hands are window dressing, and that these shows tend not to encourage real communication.
Recently, there was controversy over the Jenny Jones television program, which featured a show on secret crushes. After a guest discovered that a gay man desired him, he killed his admirer. For a brief time tabloid talk shows were under intense scrutiny, though that has died down.
There was no contact between the panelists and Ricki Lake, other than the questions she asked, courtesy of the Teleprompter.
Before the show a contract arrived in the mail from Lake’s producers – one clause (which the Wagners crossed out before faxing it back to New York) stated that the show had the right to surprise guests with incidents out of their past.
Not everything was negative; William had the chance to meet a playwright in New York, who showed him the sights. He also had the chance to speak with other gay youths, some of whom are in severe circumstances.
Carolyn says that though William strongly feels the need to express his views, he now says he will never do another talk show again.
Ozark Gazette – October 6, 1997