Time for a Reality (Background) Check

“Millionaire” murder case exposes shoddy vetting of contestants

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Aug 24, 2009  |  Updated 7:37 PM CDT
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This photo, provided to AP by TMZ, shows Ryan Alexander Jenkins and Jasmine Fiore's March 18, 2009 wedding in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Say what you will about “Cops” – at least it’s the one reality show where you can usually tell the good guys from the bad guys.

The sad and gruesome murder of a former swimsuit model – allegedly at the hands of her ex-husband, “Megan Wants a Millionaire” contestant Ryan Alexander Jenkins – marks the most shocking example yet of shoddy background checks on reality TV stars and casts new doubt on an already dubious genre of entertainment.

Jenkins, who was found dead in a motel room of an apparent suicide on Sunday, somehow got cast in the VH1 show without the producers learning he had been sentenced to 15 months probation in 2007 on an assault charge in his native Canada. Now Jenkins has reached the height of reality TV infamy after being hunted in the slaying of Jasmine Fiore, who was strangled and mutilated. 

Producers for "Megan Wants," an outfit called 51 Minds, said an outside firm vetted Jenkins and stressed he never would have been allowed on the program if his assault rap had come to light. They’re investigating what went wrong with the background check.

This is far from the first time that skeletons have rattled their way out of a reality show contestant’s closet. Sometimes, the past can be embarrassing, if innocuous, as in the case of “American Idol” hopeful Frenchie Davis, who was disqualified over some racy photos. Other times, the past has proven more troubling: Andre Birleanu, the 2007 runner-up from VH1’s "America’s Most Smartest Model" – another 51 Minds show – sported a rap sheet that didn’t emerge until after the program aired, The Associated Press notes.

Forget about whether the viewer is getting an accurate picture of the folks on the shows. Think of the safety of contestants, especially in reality programs where the characters are forced to live together in remote or enclosed locations, and are placed into situations designed to breed competition, conflict and even romance.

Jenkins, a 32-year-old supposed millionaire, was known as the “smooth operator” on VH1’s “Megan.” He reportedly met Fiore, 28, in March shortly after filming the series.

The need for more extensive criminal background checks of reality show contestants is a given. The murder case, no matter Jenkins’ involvement, demands that the networks running the shows take on a greater role in ensuring proper vetting. It might be too early for the FCC to step in, but there’s little doubt Washington is now watching.

VH1, to its credit, pulled “Megan Wants a Millionaire” from the air Friday. But, incredibly, the cable channel has yet to make a decision whether to run the yet-to-be aired “I Love Money 3,” another show in which Jenkins participated.
  
It may be time for all producers and networks with reality shows being filmed or already on the air to take a hard, second look at whether full criminal background checks were performed on all contestants. The grim reality is there could be more Ryan Alexander Jenkinses lurking on our TV screens.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow Hester on Twitter.

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