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CLARENCE PAGE: My surprisingly fond farewell to Jerry Springer

Some television hosts might hang their heads in shame if their show was dubbed “Worst TV show in history.” Jerry Springer wore it like a badge of honor.

“It’s hard for anyone to get upset at our show today,” Springer said after receiving that dubious honor from TV Guide in 2002, “when you see the same stuff on social media.”

Indeed. What may have sounded like a sarcastic rationalization from Springer in those days sounds downright prophetic amid today’s Wild West of YouTube “influencers” and raw smartphone video footage.

Springer’s words came back to me recently following the news that he had died at age 79 in his Chicago-area home.

I felt saddened by the news, yet also grateful to have lived long enough to appreciate what he had taught American TV viewers about themselves. He made many of us news consumers wonder whether we, as the title of a classic book by media theorist Neil Postman declared in the 1980s, were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

As a magnet for curious eyeballs, Springer’s show was a runaway hit in the ratings, offering a demolition derby of social dysfunction onstage. Yet it was also a source of raging anxiety for many of us who cared about the future of journalism — and civilization.

The one-time Cincinnati mayor and news anchor seemed to offer a three-ring circus of tabloid-TV topics in a race to the cultural bottom against the success of Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey.

Known for raucous arguments that occasionally broke into hair-pulling, chair-throwing and bleep-filled arguments, the daytime talk show was a favorite American guilty pleasure — or forbidden fruit — from 1991 to 2018.

Its most memorable topics included “Stripper Sex Turned Me Straight,” “Fighting for My Cheating, Stripper-Obsessed Man!” “Stop Pimping My Twin Sister” “Hooking Up With My Therapist,” and “Worshiping the Lord With Snakes!”

Through it all, his faithful audience offered approving chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” — as Springer calmly worked the room with his wireless microphone in hand.

And always at the end would come a summary commentary and his redemptive sign-off, used more recently by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt: “Take care of yourself, and each other.”

None of this sat well with my fellow members of the journalism community, who tend to cling to old-fashioned and endangered but still reliable notions of journalistic ethics and dignified discourse.

For example, when executives at NBC 5 in Chicago brought Springer in to do commentaries on the station’s popular 10 p.m. newscast, award-winning anchors Carol Marin and Ron Magers boycotted his appearances and later left the highly rated station — amid appreciative applause from many of their colleagues, including me.

When I had an enviable opportunity to chat with Springer at a 2018 meeting of the National Conference of Newspaper Columnists in Cincinnati, I was pleased to learn firsthand that the bad boy of the airwaves turned out to be considerably more sane, well-informed and thoughtful than his oddball media image would lead us to believe.

Because I grew up in the Cincinnati area, I was familiar with Springer’s earlier days as a local politician before he became a TV anchor and commentator. In particular, I remembered how his savvy and frankness enabled him to survive one of the goofiest political scandals that I can recall.

He confessed to the FBI that, as a city councilman, he had paid prostitutes with two personal checks in December 1973 and January 1974. Locals understandably wondered whether his paying prostitutes with personal checks showed he was too dishonest — or simply too naive — to hold public office.

Either way, Springer’s candor with the voters paid off. When he later ran for Cincinnati mayor, he even owned up in a campaign commercial to his paying for sex years earlier.

Result: In 1975, he won his council seat back in one of the biggest political comebacks in Cincinnati history. Once again, he read the public mood and won.

So, despite hosting the reputedly “worst show in TV history,” Springer’s candor offered an admirable model for other politicians to remember — and follow.

More than I expected, he will be missed.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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