US confuses fiction and reality in the outing of Ellen

If No cause exists for furious national debate, the American media can be relied upon to invent one.

Take the feeding frenzy generated by the news that the lead character in Ellen, a second-rate TV sitcom ranking 35th in the national ratings, will be announcing she is gay in a one-hour special that ABC is to air in two weeks' time.

We know this already because Disney, the company that owns ABC, decided the best hope of reviving the flagging show lay in sacrificing dramatic suspense to promotional hype. To whet the public's appetite further, thereby maximising the advertising revenue on the big night, Disney gave the show's star, Ellen DeGeneres, the go-ahead to give Time magazine an exclusive interview revealing that she is a lesbian in real life.

Time duly put a picture of a beaming Ms DeGeneres on last week's cover alongside the breezy headline, "Yep, I'm Gay". Newsweek, having got wind of its rival's scoop, flagged the story on its cover too. Then the rest of the media weighed in. Under a pretence of earnest inquiry, the day and night-time talk shows on both radio and TV have been gleefully arbitrating between Moral Majority crusaders and advocates of gay rights; articles examining the moral, commercial, religious and political implications of Ellen's real and fictional outing have appeared in every conceivable national publication, from the New York Times, to Business Week, to the American Family Association Journal.

Nothing like the same frisson accompanied the novelist Patricia Cornwell's admission last week that she once had a homosexual affair, even though Ms Cornwell's reputation in the world of books far exceeds Ms DeGeneres's in showbusiness. Which provides proof once more, as an academic quoted in the New York Times put it, that television is the "command centre" of American public life.

TV is the medium that gives this huge, ethnically disparate country its collective identity. Such is the blur between fantasy and reality that a social phenomenon as widespread as homosexuality is only believed to exist by the population at large once it has been fictionally certified on a national network.

That was the case with the Murphy Brown episode of six years ago when the lead character's decision to give birth out of wedlock sparked a blazing row about family values, with Vice-President Dan Quayle leading the chorus of outrage.

Compounding the confusion still further this time is Oprah Winfrey who will be making a cameo appearance in the Ellen special as the tortured heroine's psychological counsellor, which happens to be the same function she exercises on behalf of the nation as a whole when she interviews real people in her spectacularly popular TV talk show. And then, as if to lay bare proof that TV is indeed more real than the tangible world, she will be interviewing Ms DeGeneres on her show a week before the special is aired. On ABC, of course.

Ms DeGeneres is also to appear on ABC's current affairs programme 20/20 for what will be billed as a solemn discussion of social reactions to female homosexuality. The broadcast's more serious purpose will be to persuade as many viewers as possible to tune in on 30 April for what Disney hopes will be the biggest television blockbuster since the O J Simpson trial.

O J, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is a living, breathing human being. Murphy Brown was a fictional creation. Ellen is both. All have provoked heated national discussion of the three most consuming and divisive issues in American public life: race, religion and sex.

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