It’s time for TLC to get out of the Duggar business.
On Thursday Josh Duggar, eldest son of the giant clan in TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, admitted “act[ing] inexcusably” following the revelation of charges that he molested underage girls, including some of his sisters, when he was a teenager. His confession came after an expose reported by InTouch, which unearthed police records that not only documented the molestation but showed that patriarch Jim Bob Duggar waited more than a year before contacting police. Josh Duggar also resigned as executive director of the Family Research Council, a socially conservative advocacy group.
And TLC? It hasn’t announced any decision on the show’s future. (As I write, it’s replaced a daytime rerun of the show with The Little Couple.) Josh may be paying some price. But TLC also needs to stop collecting a price from a lucrative franchise that has turned out to be a sanctimonious sham.
This is not about TV networks having an obligation to exact punishments that the justice system didn’t. TLC, Discovery and every other media corporation are not legal authorities, and I don’t especially want media executives responsible for meting out justice.
They are, however, responsible for the programming they put on. And what TLC has been putting on the air since 2008 with the Duggar family is, simply, a moral fraud.
That may not be TLC’s fault—the incidents predate the show’s premiere—but it is TLC’s problem. 19 Kids is not just about the wacky logistics of running a really, really big family. It’s social advocacy, about the Duggars setting themselves up as a moral and religious example, espousing conservative Christian values and withdrawal from the wickedness of larger society—homeschooling, limiting media intake—as a means of raising Godly children. They set themselves up as a model, and implicitly or explicitly criticized other ways of life—even before you get to the family’s extracurricular political endorsements, judgment of gay couples, and involvement with organizations whose missions are to tell the rest of us how to live.
Nobody’s perfect. But child molesting is a much bigger imperfection than most, one that the show’s audience deserved to know about. That the family kept the whole truth from us and set themselves up as paragons of childrearing and decency is morally dishonest. It’s not just an insult to people who don’t share their religious and cultural beliefs. It’s an offense to all the people who fervently do.
Maybe those believers are willing to put this behind them. Maybe they feel, genuinely, that the family has suffered and want to support it. And it will be tempting for TLC to leave it at that and leave a valuable franchise on the air. (That wasn’t enough to save Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the onetime phenomenon TLC canceled after reports that matriarch Mama June was dating a convicted child molester.)
It has no excuse to. Maybe Josh Duggar is truly remorseful, maybe not. That’s for people to decide themselves. And it may be that the show’s fans—or even non-fans—may decide to forgive his actions and his family’s inactions. That’s a personal decision. As a moral principle, judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged is admirable. But as a business principle, it means being able to do anything, to do business with anyone, and profit from it anyway.
Maybe TLC couldn’t help that the Duggars’ hypocrisy got on the air. But it can make sure that it doesn’t go on making money from it.