by Jorge Reyes
It's a difficult job trying to defend the indefensible, something even seasoned attorneys must have a hard time doing. And so it was that not long ago I was invited to participate in a live TV show called Arrebatados, hosted by the queen of Spanish talk-show Maria Laria. Arrebatados is seen everyday at 4:00 p.m., on America Teve WJAN-Miami.
I agreed to participate in the panel discussion when the show's producer asked me what I thought of one of the most controversial divas on Spanish TV these days, Niurka Marcos, a woman who can't answer a question without making a shock statement. The producer told me he was having a hard time trying to find anyone to defend her, would I like to do it? Personally, I had seen her before and I'd been privileged enough to hear some of her most shocking statements about sex in general, her life and her lovers. This modern day female Socrates has a view on every subject under the sun, though she's not an expert on any of them, mind you.
I agreed to go on the show, but not necessarily to defend Niurka. Instead, I'd defend her right of self-expression and, perhaps, critique some of her ideas, if I knew what they really were. To this day, I don't.
Niurka is very controversial, and whenever she's interviewed on television the ratings go up the roof. As viewers, of course, we love to hear her ranting and ravings even though we love to criticize her at the same time-- she's one of those characters we love to hate.
In Arrebatados, there were six other panelists all of whom criticized her, and often on very personal terms. As the lone dissenter, I did my best by arguing that if we don't like Niurka's behavior or what she represents, we should then simply turn off the TV set and do away with her. That wasn't enough because, as the other panelists counterargued, Niurka was a public figure and as such she had to endure scrutiny of every stripe. Undaunted, I went on to argue that Niurka has the right to speak her mind, act like the crazed woman she likes to portray herself as-- which in the past has included taking her clothes off right in the middle of an interview. Mind you, I still didn't know what Niurka's views were on a plethora of issues since her ticket to fame is not what she says, but how she says it.
It was then that the strangest thing happened. Right in the middle of the live show, guess who called? Niurka herself!
The host Maria Laria was pleased that she had called, except when Niurka started to jabs against her saying that she was used to answering stupid questions like the ones she was asking her, it was the price she paid for being famous, outspoken, and a woman. As she went on ranting, she'd been watching the show and felt that the panelists criticizing her were full of it, that if someone didn't like her they could kiss her rear-end. I tried to ask her a few nice questions, which she answered rather curtly. She wasn't interested in me. She craved the controversial. She wanted a good fight. I was irrelevant to her. I must say, the whole incident made for some great TV.
Back in 1995, I was also asked to participate in an equally controversial Spanish talk-show hosted by Cristina Saralegui.
At that time, I went on the show to defend some of the ideas of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, one of the best known American atheists, who often takes the credit for removing bible reading from the public school systems. O'Hair went on to build a career defaming every religious idea and poked fun at anyone with religious faith. No wonder that she'd been dubbed as "the most hated woman in America" by Life Magazine in the 1960's. Again, I didn't go to defend O'Hair personally as a groupie might do trying to defend a cult leader. I went to the Cristina Show to defend O'Hair's right to express her ideas, no matter how obnoxious they may have been. As I reasoned, if her ideas were bad the best way to find out was to scrutinize them and let them stand up to critical inquiry. In the marketplace of ideas, the important thing is having a forum to defend any competing claims to truth, and not necessarily demonizing the person who makes those claims. (For the record in 1995 O'Hair, her eldest son and granddaughter were abducted from their home and their charred remains were found five years later in a Texas ranch.)
That day in 1995, I was booed by the audience and personally affronted by the hostess. A novice at this, I almost walked out right in the middle of the show. If any ideas were discussed, they were lost with the loud jeers. As I realized, the entire premise of the show was entertainment. I was portrayed as the freak of nature defending, of all things, atheism.
The only difference between 1995 and 2009 is that I now understand the theatrics of television and I am able to stand my own against anyone who tries to bully me into silence. The other difference is that Arrebatados is a show about discussion, meaning that most of the panelists on the show take their ideas serious.
When one forges a career around a controversy or controversial issue, then expect to endure in the business only by becoming ever more controversial, not less. And no matter how rational or unique the idea you expouse may be, the message more often than not gets lost in the translation and we become, instead, more fascinated by the person than by what he or she is trying to say. That was true about the much-hated O'Hair as much as it is about Marcos. Both women understood long ago the power of television and each in their own way have exploited it for their own personal, commercial and professional interests. They're not the only ones, of course, there are many others like the once virginal Madonna turned sex crack-pot turned English lady, with a fake English accent to boast!
Yet, once you start down the slippery slope of controversy you must continue on that path of mischievous rebelliousness. Controversy for the sake of controversy becomes an end in itself. It's a shame because, as I wrote, to this day I'm not really sure what Niurka's message is or why so many feel label her as controversial. Her message, I guess, is all lost in translation.