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Sex, Lies, and Reality Television

Why honesty is not always the best policy


Moment of Truth, the ludicrously hyped Fox reality series where contestants answer intrusive questions for a shot at $500,000, is back for its second "shocking" season, and just like its first "shocking" season (which only ended a couple months ago), the new one delivers about as much voltage as a flat can of Coke. A married woman admits she's cheated on her husband? That revelation wouldn't even earn her a spot in Jerry Springer's studio audience. A man has gambling debts he hid from his wife? Until that man actually bets and loses his wife in a poker game, Dr. Phil is not interested.

If the disclosures that occur on Moment of Truth aren't that alarming, however, the show does have one intriguing aspect: Contestants routinely opt out of the game after reaching the $100,000 mark. In doing so, they're essentially acknowledging that their secrets are worth more than the additional $400,000 that is theirs for the taking, simply for answering a few more questions accurately. In an age where people expose every last detail about themselves for no payoff save a few extra MySpace readers, this aspect of the game is genuinely shocking. At least a handful of people in America still value privacy.

Meanwhile, a British company has developed a camera that can see through clothes at 80 feet. Lawmakers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania are contemplating a measure that will make it mandatory for certain businesses to operate security cameras on their premises around the clock. Soon, our surveillance tools will be more omniscient than God, but will they be as forgiving? On Moment of Truth, the contestants aren't spies or terrorists or serial killers—they're waiters and hair salon assistants and housewives. They think of themselves as decent people. "On a daily basis, would you say you try to be honest with everyone you meet?" host Mark Walberg asks a contestant, during a friendly moment of good-cop banter before the formal interrogation begins.

"I do," the woman replies. "I'm a big believer in honesty."

"Question two," Walberg continues, his voice sharpening to signify his shift into bad-cop mode. "Have you ever told a credit card company that a charge was not yours, when in fact you knew it was?"

"Um, yes, I have," the woman answers sheepishly.

Every episode follows the same downward trajectory. The boyishly handsome former NFL quarterback? The pleasant-looking New York housewife? Within minutes, they all look like creeps—selfish, deceitful, hypocritical, morally deficient. They touch clients inappropriately. They hit strangers' cars and don't leave a note. They snoop through the desks of their co-workers. They're happy when their siblings experience misfortune.

Most of us have committed similar indiscretions, of course—but there's only so many people Mark Walberg can fit into his schedule. Lucky for us, that's how justice works in a general. As a culture, we're not very good at detecting wrongdoing, or meting out punishment when we do. Such inefficiencies gives us the freedom to break speed limits, overestimate tax write-offs, and steal grapes from the supermarket, and it also gives us the freedom to conceive of ourselves as generally decent sorts. Our forgetfulness helps too. Sure, we may pick our nose from time to time, or drive with our children sitting on our laps when they should be in a carseat, or outsource our pleasure fulfillment to paid professionals. But we don't dwell. We forget these lesser moments, and since there's no easily accessible public record of them, who's to know? Bad people? Not us. In fact, 95% of the time, we're big believers in honesty.

Alas, the days of flying under the radar are coming to an end. Unless we're doing something wrong, we're told, the kind of pandemic surveillance that is just around the corner poses no threat to us—and yet look at how our most closely monitored celebrities are responding to such pressures. There's a chance, no doubt, that Britney and Lindsay are members of a terrorist cell in league with Al Qaeda, and the strain of potential exposure is what's making them so crazy. Or maybe it's just that a bottle of booze and a fistful of tranquilizers is a perfectly reasonable way to address the fact that every public moment of your life—and thus every little slip-up you make, not to mention the really spectacular ones—is going to get recorded, publicized, analyzed.

To his great credit, President Bush endures similar scrutiny, and yet he never forgets to wear his pants in public. But not everyone's made of such strong stuff. On the most talked-about episode of Moment of Truth, after a contestant already confessed to cheating on her husband and admitted that she was in love with another man on the day she got married, she was asked if she thought she was a good person. "Honestly, I think I am a good person," she replied, with apparent conviction, but the show's talking polygraph quickly set her straight: "That answer is false."

At first, the woman's mouth opened into a tiny circle of disbelief, then she attempted to make a case for herself. "I think that I have become a better person," she tried, but Walberg wasn't buying it. The machine said she was lying, he carefully explained. "Your truth is that you don't think you're a good person at all," he concluded, with all the moral authority that accrues from having presided over shows like 101 Biggest Celebrities Oops and Temptation Island.

And how, really, could she rebut that? In approximately five minutes, she'd admitted that her marriage was a farce, that she'd stolen money from a past employer, that she'd sooner give food to a stray dog than a homeless person. All she could do was nod in agreement. She was a bad person. The evidence was there. In the coming years, as we perfect our abilities to capture and catalog every misdeed we commit, it's a conclusion we're all likely to reach.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.