Ryan Jenkins, the reality-dating-show contestant suspected in the murder of his model ex-wife, turned up dead of an apparent suicide in a Canadian motel. I’d been loath to write about the story, because while Jenkins’ appearance on VH1′s Megan Wants a Millionaire (hands up, who heard of it before the murder case?) provided a news hook and flashy headlines, it seemed incidental to the actual crime. I didn’t want to either trivialize the murder or feed into some sensationalistic idea that reality TV somehow turned Jenkins into a killer.
As the story went on, however, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there wasn’t as much “Did reality TV drive him to kill?” coverage as I would have thought there might be. I suspect that five or six years ago it might have been different—back when reality TV was in full-on pop-culture-craze mode and was therefore more of a go-to social bogeyman.
Brian Stelter in the New York Times did do an interesting story on the Jenkins case, raising the question about whether VH1, and other reality show makers, do an adequate job of psychologically screening their casts. That’s an important consideration, for the networks and for the well-being of the people who do their shows. The unsettling fact is that unstable people with aggressive natures or visions of grandeur are drawn to fame, and thus, to reality TV.
But it would be a leap to go from that to infer a causal relationship: that reality TV makes people unstable and aggressive, or that reality TV uniquely ratifies their behavior in a way that makes our society less safe than if reality TV did not exist. (Because God knows, no other aspect of American society rewards vanity or aggression!)
To Stelter’s credit, his article doesn’t make that leap. And the fact that more people haven’t been—at least in the coverage that I’ve followed—is maybe the surest sign of any that reality TV is not the hot phenomenon it used to be.