As an experiment, two mornings in a row this week, I got up early, turned on the television in my apartment, and flipped through every news show on air. (Well, every show except one; I couldn’t bring myself to watch “Fox & Friends” lest I bump into Sarah Palin.) Almost every channel was covering Charlie Sheen. Each show was either interviewing Sheen, or talking to someone who had recently interviewed Sheen, or discussing Sheen with a medical or Hollywood expert. ABC was even touting an additional evening news special, “The Charlie Sheen Interview,” and brought on a guest from RadarOnline who had been with the actor when he took a drug test on camera.
This frenzy is by no means limited to morning television. On Monday, Sheen stopped by “Piers Morgan Tonight,” brandishing his negative drug-test results. In fact, Sheen is pretty much inescapable right now. Rivaling and, in some cases, even trumping coverage of the tragic violence in Libya, the protests in Wisconsin, and the possibility of a U.S. government shutdown, Sheen is being given a podium on, it seems, every major network—despite the fact that he is unstable and, at times, cruel. Which prompts the question: Have TV talking heads and execs finally lost their last shred of moral and intellectual credibility?
A quick recap: Sheen, star of the sitcom “Two and a Half Men” and a notorious partier, drug addict, and abuser of women, went into rehab in January, shutting down his show, after a binge of antics that included trashing a hotel room while a prostitute was locked in a closet. He later emerged to publicly insult the show’s creator and claim Alcoholics Anonymous is a “cult.” Since then, he’s been on a tear of interviews, which networks are gobbling up, saying things like, “You can’t process me with a normal brain,” and, “I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.” He’s demanded that CBS, which airs his show, apologize to him and give him a raise because he’s “underpaid.” “It’s everybody else that’s going to be begging for their jobs back,” he told “Today.”
Are his comments absurd? Yes. Are they vicious? Yes. But they are also sad. Sheen could not be more clearly unwell; he even looks haggard and makes jerky, discomfiting motions when talking. (And, no, I don’t think he's faking this whole episode, Joaquin Phoenix-style.) The last thing he needs is a limelight that exacerbates his sick state. Yet most shows that have talked to him—and are now stretching out the resulting interviews over several days—are treating Sheen as a serious news story of the utmost importance. Then, in a nasty turn, there are also some anchors and pundits who, capitalizing on the material he's generated for their networks, are laughing at Sheen. On MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown,” the hosts happily played a game called, “Who Said It: Khaddafy or Sheen?” (It’s bad enough that this segment is mocking Sheen, who some have speculated might be bipolar; but it’s also joking about a despot who’s currently attacking and killing his own people.) And, the night after Sheen came on his show, Piers Morgan teasingly asked Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein if he would cast Sheen in The King's Speech 2 as the "stammering maniac from West Hollywood."
After the shooting in Tucson in January, there was much media discussion about the way our country approaches mental illness, and the takeaway was that we don’t do enough for people who need help. We don’t give them the right attention or services. And yet, here, with Sheen, the media is doing exactly what it should not: exploiting a mentally ill person—because he is a celebrity, because he's practically begging to be on air, because he says things that make for great sound bites, because they hope he’ll be a ratings boon.
Granted, the shows are, in part, focusing on Sheen’s history of addiction and questioning whether he’s “crazy” and in need of help. It would admittedly be worse if they ignored his instability and treated him as just another Hollywood bad boy. But, ultimately, the sensational yet superficial coverage is about letting Sheen talk no matter what he says, which he desperately wants to do (he joined Twitter on Tuesday to talk even more). Eager interviewers haven't batted an eye when he's said bizarre or hateful things, even if they joke about his comments later, and, in the process, they’ve given him time to defend and justify actions that were either criminal or evidence he needs psychiatric help. (Or just proof that he can be an enormous jerk.) For instance, Sheen denied to Piers Morgan that he has ever hit a woman—despite the fact that he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after an altercation with now ex-wife Brooke Mueller in 2009, and no contest in 1997 to charges of abuse inflicted on girlfriend Brittany Ashland. He told Morgan that he was restraining Ashland from attacking him with a small fork she must have stolen from a buffet, and the show’s host seemed just fine with that answer, merely asking if Sheen regretted the incident. The segment ran with the title “Sheen Sets the Record Straight.”
In the words of NBC’s Jeff Rossen, who’s spent many chummy hours with Sheen for a series of interviews, this is about “fairness” and giving Sheen a “platform.” But, simply put, he shouldn't be given one. He’s not an elected figure or decision-maker. Whatever ills he’s suffering from are private matters that shouldn’t be trivialized in primetime, and whatever he’s done that's wrong shouldn’t be glossed over.
I won’t pretend that TV coverage of unworthy celebrity scandals is a new phenomenon. Most recently, there were Lindsay Lohan’s trips to court, rehab, and jail, which had shows running a daily horserace for stories. But the treatment of Sheen feels like the Lohan coverage on steroids. It’s also doing a disservice to the lives Sheen has disrupted or ruined—including his own—and to the millions who are suffering from addiction or mental illness.
Sheen told Howard Stern on Tuesday that he’s done with interviews. I wouldn’t bet on that being true. But, regardless of what he does next, rest assured networks will find a way to keep the Sheen-mania going.
Seyward Darby is the deputy online editor of The New Republic.