A prank call that may have led to the death of a British nurse has struck a chord with Americans just as guilty of laughing at TV and radio jokes that have come close to prompting tragic, if not fatal, responses.
The prank call remains a staple of a number of U.S. syndicated radio programs, including the Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Steve Harvey Show, with a cast member calling a listener, pretending to be someone else, and then goading the unsuspecting victim into an irate response.
TV viewers' uneasy affection for such comedy goes back to at least when Candid Camera hit the airwaves in 1948. Produced by the legendary Allen Funt, it began on radio the year before as Candid Microphone. The concept was taken to another generation in 2003, when Ashton Kutcher began hosting Punk'd.
As infuriating as some Punk'd pranks were to their victims, though, none ended with a death. London authorities have been investigating whether Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old nurse and mother of two, killed herself after becoming an unwitting participant in a hoax to get hospital officials to discuss the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy.
Kate Middleton, wife to Prince William, was a patient at King Edward VII Hospital for treatment of acute morning sickness when two Australian radio personalities pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles called to ask about her condition. Saldanha forwarded the call to another nurse, who provided details.
The taped conversation was broadcast later, prompting outrage that the radio station would violate any hospital patient's privacy and concern that royal security had been compromised. Days later, Saldanha was found dead. Her brother Naveen attributed the apparent suicide to her "shame about the incident."
The radio hosts, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, are now the subjects of worldwide derision. They contend it was never their intent to embarrass anyone but themselves. They never expected the hospital staff to believe their phony accents. They also said the decision to air the taped conversation was made by the station's management, not by them.
That may be the most disturbing aspect of this incident. This was no live radio segment in which responsible people didn't have a chance to intercede before sensitive information was broadcast. To boost its ratings and gain advertising revenue, the radio station decided to use the duchess' medical condition as the basis for a joke.
The joke backfired. Companies have withdrawn ads from 2Day FM, and station owner Southern Cross Austereo is under investigation. The company has been in trouble before with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, in 2009 for an insensitive interview with a 14-year-old rape victim, and last year after a journalist called a critic of his TV program "a piece of s-."
Tastelessness has become too common on TV and radio. But a crass society isn't the only price paid in the anything-goes competition for larger audiences. In at least one case, the result may have been an avoidable death.