Press of Atlantic City Article

Published in the May 16, 2009 edition of the newspaper Press of Atlantic City


Source: By DAN GOOD
Staff Writer, 609-272-7218

Family affairs / ‘Jon & Kate Plus 8' began with a bunch of cute kids, but is now embroiled in marital strife.

Some people think the matriarch on TLC's reality show "Jon & Kate Plus 8" is a victim, after murky tabloid reports surfaced of her husband's affair. Others say she's a wifezilla for her demanding nature, or narcissistic for trying to lasso fame at any cost, or the pawn of a network trying to fuel ratings.

Maybe she's none of those things. Maybe she's all of them. Maybe she's just a loving mom with eight bundles of joy. Either way America is watching, as the camera now zooms into the private lives of people who've opened their home for all to see. Is all the frenzy and scrutiny on the Gosselins' personal lives fair? Depends on whom you ask.

Octo-sized lifestyle.

They just wanted to build a family. Berks County , Pa. , natives Jon and Kate Gosselin were married for less than a year when they started trying to have children. The couple had trouble conceiving, so they turned to fertility treatments, and the fertility treatments worked. Really, really well.

In 2000, the Gosselins bore twins, Cara and Mady. A few years later they tried to have one more child, and this time they had six: Alexis, Hannah, Aaden, Collin, Leah and Joel.

Discovery Health filmed two hourlong specials on the family, then the series followed in early 2007, and it's been a runaway hit — TLC's most popular program, a glimpse into the group's quirky, busy, octo-sized lifestyle.

For four seasons, the family's been presented as hectic but happy, with tons of laundry and a bunch of mouths to feed but strong moral fiber. Sure, Kate Gosselin was a nagger. Sure, Jon Gosselin was a klutz. But the kids were sooooo cute. There was something wholesome about the family.

That perception changed in April, when Us Weekly nabbed pictures of Jon Gosselin, sans wedding ring, leaving a bar with 23-year-old elementary school teacher Deanna Hummel. Hummel's brother accused the pair of having an affair, and the speculation sparked a media firestorm.

Kate Gosselin addressed the accusations on "Larry King Live" and the "Today" show, where she told Meredith Vieria "We are working through it privately, as a family." Then she graced the cover of this week's People magazine, next to the headline "We Might Split Up."

"I don't know that we're in the same place anymore, that we want the same thing," Kate Gosselin told People.

Us Weekly, Star magazine and the National Enquirer also devoted this week's covers to the couple. The reports range from sad to bizarre, detailing infidelity from both camps and lurid details of their relationship. As with the show, there's no way of knowing the amount of truth behind these stories.

Here's the reality — Jon and Kate Gosselin's marriage is in trouble. And besides TV ratings, all the hype isn't helping anything, especially the children.

Sending a message

Melissa Soto DVRs episodes of "Jon and Kate Plus 8" until her DVR memory is full, then she watches the episodes over and over. The 30-year-old Galloway Township resident is inspired by Kate Gosselin's strength and attitude, and the way she doesn't sugarcoat things. Soto likes all the neat little adventures the group embarks on, and how the parents devote one-on-one time to each child.

"The kids are adorable, and the show sends such a nice message," Soto, a mother of two, said. "I hope it never stops."

Soto's husband doesn't usually have time to watch the show. Too busy.
Adrienne Richardson also looks to the Gosselins for guidance. The publisher of South Jersey MOM Magazine, Richardson feels overwhelmed sometimes with her two children ... but eight?

"If I had eight kids, I don't know what I would do," said Richardson, a Vineland resident. Richardson thinks the stress of children and cameras leads Kate Gosselin to appear strong-willed on the show. Richardson understands why viewers — or even Kate Gosselin's spouse — might not enjoy that.

Kate Gosselin's attitude has become a target of slings from the pop culture clip show "The Soup" in recent months, even before the cheating gossip surfaced. "The Soup" highlighted snippets that show Kate Gosselin verbally berating her husband for interrupting her and forgetting to use a coupon.

"Jon's her husband, and he has to decide if he wants to stay with someone like her," Richardson said. "It's something he has to deal with. We can turn off the TV, but he can't."

Julie Nguyen watches "Jon and Kate Plus 8" every once and again. Nguyen, 33, of Egg Harbor Township , has one child but her sister has twins, so she understands how demanding it is to raise multiples. Nguyen says Jon Gosselin should show more tact in whatever he does outside the house.

"With eight kids at home, how did he have time to have an affair?" she said. "Jon shouldn't be going out and trying to get with a younger woman. Is he trying to get nine?"

Nguyen is intrigued by the family's private world turned inside-out. If fame hadn't fallen on the Gosselin's doorstep, none of this speculation and gossip would exist.

"If my husband or I had an affair, no one would know about it," she said. "For their children's sake, I hope Jon and Kate can work things out."

What about the children?

Serena Leigh Bell is one of seven moderators of the online blog Gosselins Without Pity, located at gosselinswithoutpity.blogspot.com. The blog was created in April 2008 to discuss the show — but more importantly, Bell says, to look out for the interests of the Gosselin children.

The blog received five million hits during the past year, but the affair speculation caused a recent deluge in readership. Wednesday, 113,819 people visited Gosselins Without Pity. The previous daily high was 77,000.

"We screen the comments on our site before posting them, and it seems like new comments are pouring into the queue every second," Bell said.

While the pictures of Jon Gosselin started all of this, Bell blames Kate Gosselin's media tour for fueling the public's interest. Bell believes every magazine cover and interview is chipping away at the children's chances at living normal, well-adjusted lives.

"Whatever Jon and Kate are doing between themselves, I couldn't care less," Bell said. "Until Kate and Jon retreat from the public eye and get their problems straightened out, this will continue to rob the children of their privacy."

How much privacy do the Gosselin children have left? They've grown up with cameras stuffed in their faces. Their home is a television studio. Their play dates and vacations and temper tantrums are episodes.

Jeffrey M. McCall, communication professor at DePauw University in Indiana , has critiqued TV and media for more than a decade, and he wrote about reality television in the book "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences."

McCall is concerned about the impact the lifestyle will play on the eight little ones. "Ten years from now, these children are going to have to hear about this, they're still going to be the children from the show," McCall said. "They didn't decide to participate in this."

With a glut of reality programming now devoted to families — TLC's "18 Kids and Counting," "Table for 12" and "Little People, Big World," among others — Bell hopes the Gosselin's plight will lead to stricter regulations for child reality stars. Child labor laws vary from state to state, so the Gosselin children aren't subject to the same regulations and protections Hollywood child actors are.

"We don't know that the Gosselin children aren't being protected, but the laws aren't in place in Pennsylvania to ensure that it's happening," Bell said.

The reality behind reality

At the crux of this issue hangs the balance of perception and reality. While the world has looked inside the Gosselins' home for three specials, four seasons and 92 episodes, we still don't know what Kate and Jon Gosselin are like in "real" life.

We don't know if Kate Gosselin is a victim, a wifezilla, a fame seeker, a pawn or just a loving mom with eight bundles of joy. We don't know Jon Gosselin, either. We don't know how much input the producers have on the show.

We don't know. We may never know.

TLC's public relations director did not return a phone message seeking comment for this story, and Figure 8 Films, the company that produces the show, declined comment.

In a statement, TLC said, "This show has always been about a real family dealing with real-life situations, and that will continue to be the case."

Scott Sternberg has spent three decades producing reality television, and his credits include Paula Abdul's show "Hey Paula," "The Singing Office" with Joey Fatone, and Fox Reality's "The Academy," which follows recruits through Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy training.

While Sternberg has no ties to "Jon and Kate Plus 8," he believes the show relies on a blend of reality and production. On shows like "Jon and Kate," he says it's common for the stars to discuss story lines with producers ahead of time.

"While some episode concepts might be pre-planned, it's difficult to produce children's actions, so there's some authenticity here," he said.

Former show members told Bell that during filming, the children sometimes have to sit in the van and wait for the camera crew to get established so photographers can capture "the shot." Bell said the family's Christmas gift exchange was filmed weeks in advance of the holiday.

"It's an odd way to grow up," Bell said. "It's like the ‘Truman Show.'"

Last Sunday, Mother's Day, the sextuplets celebrated their fifth birthday. As with everything else the family does, cameras were present. The birthday party — and some other things — will be the basis of next season's first episode, "Turning 5 & The Future!" The hour-long special airs May 25.

Sternberg believes Kate Gosselin's interviews du jour with national media outlets are a way for the network and production company to ensure ratings.

"It calls attention and steers more eyeballs to the show," Sternberg said. "Now we all want to see what happens next."

What's next?

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