Posted on 16 March 2011
By David Bauder
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Public attitudes toward immigration are put to the test on the latest episode of a news–reality hybrid television show that uses hidden cameras to record the reactions of real people.
An episode of the ABC network’s “What Would You Do?” shows the responses of people standing in line at a deli behind two day laborers fumbling with cash and struggling with English, when the clerk begins spewing hatred. “Go back to your country or go eat at Taco Bell.”
What would you do?
Stand in uncomfortable silence, hoping simply to leave as quickly as possible? Tell the clerk to shut up? Join in with the bigotry? Kick the men as they’re down?
When ABC News set up that scenario in a New Jersey deli, hiring actors to portray the clerk and laborers, and hiding cameras to record people’s reactions, it found all of those responses — and more.
“What Would You Do?” has gotten some traction on ABC.
Producer Chris Whipple thought of the idea after wondering if there was a way to do a TV version of “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. There was an immediate response in the ratings after “Primetime” carried the first segment in 2004 with an actor portraying a babysitter who was verbally abusing a boy in a park.
ABC carried five “What Would You Do?” hours last winter and doubled the order for this year because it was the highest-rated newsmagazine program with younger viewers.
“It’s the kind of insightful television that makes you think, the water-cooler stuff you talk about the next morning,” said John Quinones, who anchors the series. “It’s pretty powerful, and [it’s] a reminder that you’re not in this world alone. You have to look out for all your fellow human beings.”
The deli segment proved to be emotional. Even though he was an actor, one of the men portraying a laborer cried later because of the way he was treated.
One Black man initially advised the laborers to get out of the deli, at first seemingly in sympathy but then in anger. In an interview after Quinones stepped in, he acknowledged being mad at immigrants taking away jobs. He softened after some thought, realizing he was guilty of the same discrimination that he had experienced.
Quinones, who grew up in San Antonio, dressed down and took a few turns himself posing as a Spanish-speaking laborer.
“Even though I knew it was all an act and the guy behind the counter was being paid to say these awful words, the words still stung,” he said.
Here’s how highly ABC thinks of the show: Even during troubled economic times, Quinones and Whipple scored a trip to Paris last summer to find out whether the French were snooty toward American tourists.
“What Would You Do?” is also a sign of changing times in broadcast news divisions. Quinones is a veteran journalist who reported about Central America for “World News Tonight” and won Emmy Awards for stories on the Congo’s rain forest and the Yanomamo Indians who reside in the Amazon rainforest.
Now Quinones spends most of his time on concocted social situations.
Quinones admitted to some trepidation about the idea at first, but he said it has been erased by how many times he has seen brave people do the right thing.
“How many other newsmagazines are tackling domestic violence, racism, attacks on the homeless, date rape, hazing, ping while Black?” Whipple said. Some of the experiments come directly from the news: The recent stabbing death of an immigrant from Ecuador on Long Island, east of New York City, has inspired a segment where people’s reactions will be tested when they see day laborers threatened with physical harm.
ABC has nine more episodes running on Tuesday nights through March.