The Current

'Missing Richard Simmons' stirs questions about ethics of mystery podcasts

Should we hold true-crime podcasts to journalistic standards?
Much like Simmons himself, producer Dan Taberski's hit podcast is wildly entertaining. But in the realm of "true" storytelling, is that creative liberty a good thing? (First Look Media)

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The Missing Richard Simmons podcast has definitely captivated listeners, topping the charts for downloads this year.

It's a serialized mystery podcast, joining the ranks of This American Life and Serial.

The show looks to answer a single question: Why has American cult icon Richard Simmons retired from public life to live reclusively?

It works through a series of running theories as to what happened to Simmons — including that he was held hostage by his maid, is undergoing a sex change, and has problems with his knees.

"Apart from the [theory] that his dog died and he maybe went into a depression … as far as I know the other rumours are completely groundless," criticizes freelance writer Jessica Brown

But Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, thinks the show is a celebration of Simmons' kindness, and believes it more to be about what Simmons represented to its producer.

"The title obviously has double meaning, and I think its strongest meaning is that people are missing him — namely Dan Tabersk is missing him.  I think it's as much a series about Taberski as it is about Simmons."

But working with real content, talking about a real person, has consequences that should be considered, says Brown.

This calls into question a potential ethical obligation to journalistic standards for true-crime podcasts broadly. 

I find it really insensitive… Richard is used as a subject for entertainment almost as if he isn't alive anymore and almost as if he has committed a horrible crime. But obviously Richard is still alive and this podcast could have repercussions.- Jessica Brown

Thompson disagrees that the podcast should be taken as a piece of journalism given its emphasis on humour and creative storytelling.

Speaking of Taberski, Thompson says, "First of all he says things like 'Oh Richard was my friend, I've been to his exercise class a 'million times.' Now if this was a piece of good, solid journalism you wouldn't use a phrase like that."

Thompson adds, "If we do hold this up to journalistic standards, then there'd a lot of issues."

But he defends this particular podcast on the basis of Simmons' celebrity status.

Richard Simmons lives in that big house thanks to the fact that he entered into this relationship ... with the public.- Bob Thompson

Brown agrees celebrities enter into an implicit agreement that they are to be talked about, but says Simmins, "Made a decision to step back from that."

"What Richard has said himself, what his agent, and what Richard's close family and friends have said ... is Richard just wants to be left alone."

Brown adds that audiences should consider their role in the equation as well. 

"It would be quite stressful if you've made a decision to step away from public life and all of a sudden there's a podcast about you that's number one on the iTunes chart … and it's very possible that this is a person who's not in the best state of mind."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of the post. 

This segment was produced by Shannon Higgins.