After speaking with Brian McGinn about the Richard Scrushy episode, I had the privilege of speaking with Tony Yacenda who directed Trial By Media‘s first episode titled “Talk Show Murder.” This episode centers around the murder of Scott Amedure. Amadedure had a secret crush on a man and brought him to The Jenny Jones Show to reveal this. Before the episode aired Jonathan Schmitz (the secret crush) went to Scott’s home and killed him.
This story hit home for me and is a news story I remember following. While I was only 11 years old at the time, I remember an immense sadness. I used to watch shows like Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake because they were places I could see queer representation without having to wait for an episode of Golden Girls to show Blanche’s gay brother. At this point in time, the media coverage around sexual orientation still focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and there was panic in the air at all times. What is interesting about the coverage of this story is the story veers more into the role the media played in potentially causing his death.
The fascinating thing about the complex nature of this case was the media was in a way putting itself on trial. This episode of the Netflix series throws a lot of questions out there about the role the media plays in shaping new stories, and stories they produce. Did The Jenny Jones Show and other shows contribute to this death? Were their underlying elements of gay panic and homophobia the media did not cover? Would a guilty verdict in the civil trial cause impending issues on the First Amendment? The complexity of this case poses a lot of questions, and talking to Tony Yacenda about tackling this was fascinating, read below:
Awards Daily TV: I remember the boon of Daytime Talk Shows. I was a big Ricki Lake fan (mainly because of Hairspray). Did you have a history watching any of these shows?
Tony Yacenda: I watched like a lot of people did, if I was home sick from school. I would not say it was a big part of what I watched, but I was aware of them.
ADTV: Did you go back to watch old episodes for research?
TY: The producer was able to pull some old Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, and Jenny Jones episodes for me. It was some interesting and unfortunate homework. I was mainly pouring legal documents. With all of this research I wanted to start out with something that holds up all the most fucked up elements of these shows. All of this research helped me to understand the subject matter for this episode.
ADTV: You directed American Vandal which leans heavy into satire. This film feels like a meta examination on the subject matter. How did you blend these elements with the subject of the case?
TY: I adore documentaries in general. I think we are in the golden age of documentary. I wanted to continue sharpening my tool kit. I wanted to hit a more traditional documentary space. When Brian was pitching the show, I was not sure I was the right fit until he told me more about this talk show murder. I was not sure it would be in my wheelhouse unless there was some levity.
There is something darkly comedic with these shows. To have this dark comedy as the under belly of this show helped me to explore the topic at hand and grasp the material.
ADTV: One of the running themes in this case was sexual orientation. How did you navigate presenting this story that is both about the media but also about homophobia?
TY: There were so many parts depending upon where you are standing and I could completely empathize with everyone. I do not know where I stand on so many issues within this story. Going into it I felt like homophobia was one pod. The more I got into the subject, there were so many different ways of coming down on that. You had this guy who may have been closeted and was about to be potentially outted in some form on TV, which was one piece.
Then there was the first amendment pod or element. Jeffrey Montgomery from the Triangle Foundation was protesting the Civil trial. He was fighting for Warner Brothers, he made a point to say that the gay panic defense was simply the same as saying “she wore a skirt and was asking for it.” That this defense was an insult. That was such a strong point weirdly aligning with a badly behaving corporation. The more we moved in, we saw the court footage and the father’s testimony. In the defense of Warner Brothers we got to see
I interviewed Amy Whelan a gay rights activist, she pointed out the things were so binary in this case so it was hard to get into some of the more complex matters. One of the biggest complications was retrial for the criminal hearing. The civil trial was happening at the same time as this retrial, and there while there was still a possibility that Jonathan would get off. If the civil trial found Warner Brothers liable that sheds more light on the complexity of the criminal case.
Again this case had so many pods to explore. The only side I would say there was a negative perspective with was Schmitz’s father. His homophobia was there in some of the trial research, this was so complex because Jonathan never came out. I was careful not to define Jonathan’s sexual orientation, it was important not to name this part of him. We did not get to see the father’s homophobia in the mainstream media. Alan Schmitz was maybe the only person I could not empathize with.
ADTV: The media and the legal system intersect at a crossroads in this story. What was your impression of this with regard to this case?
TY: I certainly do not think I had a message. Luckily that was very purposeful. I was agnostic in the way I presented the story. I have no perspective that the media should act one way or another. I do not think there is a perspective narrative.
What made things super interesting and meta is that we (the show) are a part of the press. It’s this weird thing where people are taking people’s lives and putting them on trash shows for ratings. This leads to this tragedy, which then ultimately leads to more ratings for the media. Where do we as a viewer fit into that? Is true crime that next step?
We specifically included the fact that if Scott were still around he would love this, and he would take part in this. The thing of the matters is Jerry Springer and The Thin Blue Line are not the same.
ADTV: What surprised you the most?
TY: The extent to which I was able to agree with everyone during interviews. Everyone said something that contradicted someone else’s POV, but in a way each person made an interesting point. I think when I put myself in someone else’s shoes I was able to see their perspective. Feiger was a guy who made his career fighting for the little guy against corporations and made some great points. He was making good points about fighting for underprivileged people who were being taken advantage of by these shows.
Jim Feeney defends major companies, and sometimes it’s hard to side with a guy like this, but he made great points about how this decision could have far reaching impacts on the First Amendment.
The thing I loved about this experience was it made me think about all of these different perspectives, and how they shape the narrative of this story.
Trial By Media is now streaming on Netflix.