Friday, September 14, 2012

Reality TV And Public Infrastructure: A Prisoner's Dilemma

Last week I indulged myself in a habit that really has no redeeming value but at least is not fattening—I channel surfed. I came to the end of the final episode of a show called Bachelor Pad, which is apparently where all the rejects from “The Bachelor” go. I have watched “The Bachelor” which is a show about good looking people who cannot find love except in exotic locales while being filmed. Bachelor Pad is not about winning love, but about winning money.

The part I watched was fascinating. The two finalists, Holly and Michael, are on stage and they are given a challenge by the show’s host, Chris Harrison. At stake is $250,000. Each finalist is given two words: KEEP or SHARE. The rules are simple: if they both say “share” they get $125,000 each. If they both say “keep” they get nothing. If one says “keep” and the other “share” the one that says “keep” gets it all. The choice is clear: If you trust each other you will both win. But if you don’t trust the other person, you both could lose. But, if you think the other person trusts you and wants to share, you could win more money by betraying their trust.

There is much drama, smoke, audience reaction, drum rolls and the like, but finally the contestants come back out to reveal their decision. Holly goes first. She says she and Michael were a team, she believes they could not have won without each other and so she says, “SHARE.” Michael uses his time to excoriate everyone on the show. “I did this myself” he says at least a dozen times. “No one helped me, no one liked me. I flew under the radar and none of you thought I would ever be in this seat. I had no help.” He reveals his word, “KEEP.”

I will never know what is true about what happened on Bachelor Pad, but I do know that Michael’s sense, “I did this myself. I had no help” is way too pervasive in real life. Fast forward to yesterday when I am at a wonderful conference sponsored by CalNonprofits (the California Association of Nonprofits) where Executive Director, Jan Masaoka, is speaking. She starts with a question of the 300 people assembled: “How many of you work for a nonprofit?” 99% of hands go up. “How many of you have been helped by a nonprofit?” Only about 2/3rds of hands go up. Jan is clearly surprised and proceeds to name things brought about or run by nonprofits: libraries, PBS, the recognition of the civil rights of women and people of color, many hospitals, the fact that we are safer on the freeway because of drunk driving laws and seatbelts, that the public has access to beaches and wilderness—just to name a few things. She asks again, “How many of you have been helped by a nonprofit?” Most hands go up, but I still see a few Michaels in the crowd.

Michael, I don’t imagine you are reading my blog. But if you are, let me tell you, you did not win that money alone. You may have played brilliantly, but the game was designed by someone else, the sponsors who provided the money you won were solicited by someone else, and the television technology on which you showed the kind of person you are in front of millions of people was developed with public and private funds over many years.

There is almost nothing that any of us are able to do by ourselves. Even something as private as using a toilet is made possible by an elaborate sewer and wastewater system run by the government. That Michael thinks he won the money by himself is fine. It makes for interesting “reality” TV. But that any person who works in and around a nonprofit would think they have not been helped by an enormous infrastructure funded by taxes and donations, and run by government and community based organizations is a problem. As we go into this election season, let us remember that actually our biggest contribution is the degree to which we work together. Let’s hope the word we choose every day is “SHARE.”

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