Fairness and the Bristol Stomp

Almost all children hear a set of conflicting statements from their parents, relatives, and friends. They’re told if they study hard, if they work hard, they can achieve whatever they want. It’s the “American Dream.” But they’re also told that life isn’t always fair.

Looking for internships or jobs, America’s children learn that no matter how much they studied or worked, it was the boss’s niece or a boss’s friend’s son who was hired. Sometimes, the reason for rejection could be as simple as the boss thought the best candidate was intellectually superior or that the applicant had curly black hair and he liked only blondes.

Later, on another job, while the boss bought yet another vacation home, the worker was one of dozens laid off, their jobs going to Mexico, China, or Pakistan.

It’s not fair that reality TV “stars” and pro athletes make 10 to more than 100 times the salaries of social workers and firefighters. But Americans seldom protest.

The owner of a mid-sized carpentry shop loses a contract to a large corporation, not because of a lack of quality work but because the corporation cut deals with suppliers. It’s not fair; it’s just reality.

One person driving 65 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone is stopped by police; another, doing 80, speeds along. It’s not fair. But it happens.

It probably wasn’t fair that Bristol Palin, 20-year-old unwed mother with no discernible job skills, was selected over thousands of other celebrities for ABC-TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.” It had nothing to do with fairness or her ability; it had everything to do with a reality that Palin’s presence on DWTS would bring in ratings, and ratings bring in advertising income. The first show brought in 21 million viewers who watched 30-second commercials from companies that paid almost $190,000 each, among the highest on all television—broadcast or cable.

To assure that Palin had a chance to stay on the show for at least a couple of weeks, the producers gave her a special advantage—her professional dance partner was Mark Ballas, DWTS champion twice in the previous 10 seasons.

Even with one of the best professional ballroom dancers as her partner and coach, Palin was still at the bottom of the judges’ ranking four times, and near the bottom most of the other times. According to the scoring system, each of three judges give each contestant pair—a celebrity and a professional—a score of 1 to 10. A perfect score is 30. But, viewers can vote by phone, website, or by texting. Their vote is worth half the total score.

Neither Sarah nor Bristol Palin made any special requests of the viewers that we know about. They didn’t have to. Hundreds of conservative blogs and talk show hosts did it for them, urging their flocks to vote. Many may have even scammed the system. At least one viewer told the Washington Post he not only had used fake emails to vote hundreds of times, he also told others how to do it.

Willing accomplices and accessories, of course, were the producers who made sure that Mama Palin was seen on several shows—sometimes with speaking roles, sometimes with as many as nine cutaway shots. The audience did as they were told. For nine weeks, Bristol Palin, one of the weakest dancers in the show’s 11-season history, defeated celebrity teams who had near-perfect and perfect scores.

The week before the finals, it finally seemed destined that Bristol Palin would be off the show, having again placed at the bottom of the judges’ scores. But, it was Brandy and professional dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who had done near-perfect routines, who were voted off. Shocked, the audience began booing. It didn’t matter. Palin was now one of three celebrity finalists.

The first of a two-part final the following week drew an audience of 23.7 million, highest for any entertainment program this season. However, this time, it was Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough, who had finished at the top of the judges’ lists several times, who finally won. Second were actor Kyle Massey and Lacey Schwimmer; Palin and Ballas finished third.

It makes little difference if numerous celebrities weren’t selected for Dancing With the Stars because the producers gave the slot to the less talented Bristol Palin. It doesn’t even matter that more talented celebrities were eliminated from the show because a cult of the home audience voted for Bristol Palin. In the American election system, the best candidate, for any of a thousand reasons, including blatant lies and distortion by the opposition, often doesn’t win an election.

It doesn’t seem fair. It’s just the way it is.


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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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