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The professional confessional

Published May 29, 2005

Sometimes - such as when our tough-talking politicians have to admit the government has been subsidizing sex offenders' Viagra prescriptions - life at the Say Wha? research desk can seem almost too easy. It's as if these guys are trying to write our material for us.

We truly are blessed with an embarrassment of embarrassing riches. The only problem is that the stories can pile up faster than our data processors can deal with them.

For example - in a development that was, to the best of my knowledge, entirely unrelated to the sex offenders/Viagra story - celebrity gossipmonger Pat O'Brien had already checked himself out of rehab by the time Say Wha? got around to noting that he had checked himself in.

As is usually the case in such high-profile meltdowns, O'Brien's decision to enter a rehabilitation center wasn't exactly voluntary. Instead, it was a pre-emptive move intended to dilute the impact of the dirty/hilarious audiotapes he knew were about to be circulated as widely as Paris Hilton's home movies.

I always assumed that if you'd heard one professional talker's phone sex tapes, you'd heard them all. Wrong. Sure, Pat O'Brien's and Bill O'Reilly's are comparably repellent. But the similarities end there.

O'Reilly, the Fox News talk show host, prefers a more baroque technique, weaving elaborate fantasies involving various Mediterranean words he apparently doesn't understand. "You would basically be in the shower and I would join you and ... take that little loofah thing and kinda soap up your back. ... So anyway I'd be (deleted dirty parts) ... kissing your neck from behind and then I would take the other hand with the falafel thing and I'd put it on your (more deleted dirty parts)..." (That's part of the transcript of a phone conversation included in the sexual harassment complaint filed against O'Reilly last year by former Fox News producer Andrea Mackris. The two later reached an out-of-court settlement.)

O'Brien, on the other hand, takes a more direct approach: "You're so (dirty word) hot.... Let's go get some hookers and some coke and go crazy."

As any recovering substance abuser will tell you, the first step on the path to rehabilitation involves appearing on a smarmy talk show owned by the corporate parent of your own smarmy gossip show. So O'Brien dutifully sat down for an hour-long nighttime special with Dr. Phil, his Viacom cohort.

O'Brien maintained a rigid frowny face as he was forced to listen to those embarrassing tapes and endure Dr. Phil's platitudinous scoldings and pep talks. But by the end of the special, O'Brien's old spark had returned. As he walked away from Dr. Phil, O'Brien looked fully prepared to get back to work, even if it meant loving himself enough to be able to look Jim Belushi or Angelina Jolie squarely in the eye without shame.

"There's a whole ritual that's developed around (celebrity confessionals)," media researcher Joseph Turow told the New York Times. "It typically involves admitting, treating and confessing. (O'Brien's appearance on Dr. Phil's special) is just another example of that, but it happens to be synergistically appropriate."

Meanwhile, Dr. Phil's show could stay booked for weeks with all the other embarrassed public figures who could use a synergistically appropriate place to begin their rehabilitations. To name just a few:

U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pa., could explain to Dr. Phil why a 29-year-old woman called 911 last September to complain that Sherwood had "choked (her) for no apparent reason" while giving her a back rub in his Washington, D.C., apartment. Sherwood, 64 and married, acknowledged to police that he had been giving a back rub to the woman, whom he termed "an acquaintance," when she "jumped up" and ran to the bathroom. The woman later changed her story, and police concluded that "both parties have left out significant information or are not willing to discuss in detail what actually happened." But Dr. Phil has ways of making them talk.

Professional golfer Jackie Gallagher-Smith could explain why her former caddie sued her in a West Palm Beach court this month, claiming that she used him as "an unwitting sperm donor." Gary Robinson is seeking unspecified damages, claiming fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Maybe Kwiese Mfume and Rod Blagojevich could go on Dr. Phil's show together. Mfume, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, says having an affair with a subordinate while he was president of the NAACP was a "boneheaded thing to do." Still, he denies allegations from several sources that his behavior created a hostile work environment at the headquarters of the civil rights organization.

Blagojevich, the Democratic governor of Illinois, could help out Mfume by explaining to Dr. Phil and his audience that "testicular virility" is a key ingredient of political leadership. "This is the kind of thing that I think frankly separates the men from the boys in leadership," Blagojevich told reporters this month in explaining his decision to close a landfill owned by a relative of his wife. "Do you have the testicular virility to make a decision like that, knowing what's coming your way? I say I do."

But of course, that was before the government got tough on Viagra prescriptions.

[Last modified May 29, 2005, 01:19:12]

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