By Peter Lance (Los Angeles 4/29/01) This isn't so much a post-mortem on Episode 13 as a brief on the "real" SURVIVOR drama that's unfolding behind the scenes. Not the story line on the blockbuster game show that culminates Thursday night on CBS, but the one whose next "challenge" will be heard in Dept. 57 of L.A. Superior Court on May 17th. Given the predictability of S II with it's commercial cross-plugs, and "enhanced" Challenges favoring Colby, there's no question now that the real "drama" behind SURVIVOR will be fought by contestants armed not with slingshots and boomerangs but with briefcases and law degrees.
The heart of Stacey Stillman's claim is an allegation of fraud; namely that the producers of SURVIVOR had promised her a fair game, then altered the course of play by favoring one contestant over another. In her case, it was the beloved 72-year old ex-Navy SEAL curmudgeon Rudy Boesch. Stacey says that on the morning of the Day 9 Tribal Council Mark Burnett pulled Sean and Dirk aside and suggested they boot her off. That's exactly what they did that night and Rudy, more closely reflecting the olrder CBS demographic, stayed until the Final Four. Ironically, the next time Sean got a chance to vote somebody off the Island, he wrote Rudy's name on the paper. And in a double irony, at that same Tribal Council, his buddy Dirk was given the boot.
On SURVIVOR, what goes around always comes around.
Sean has denied the charge, although he acknowledged that Burnett met with him and told him to vote his conscience. When I interviewed Dirk for THE STINGRAY last fall he issued several non-denial denials. But when Stacey brought suit on February 5th against CBS and Burnett, she alleged that Dirk had gone even further, sending a two page typewritten letter to Burnett on May 8th of 2000.
In it, according to Stacey, Dirk confirmed that he'd been "solicited and manipulated" into voting her off. The letter, could prove to be the "smoking gun" of this multi-million dollar case and on April 9th Dirk gave a reported six hour deposition under oath, during which he was asked to authenticate it.
The lawyers for SEG Inc., the partnership of CBS & SURVIVOR Productions that's suing Stacey, asked the court to seal Dirk's depo and any exhibits as "confidential," arguing that if they saw the light of day they could jeopardize the "trade secret" of how SURVIVOR is produced. But as a viewer and a reporter trying to understand the truth in all this, I had to wonder. What could be hiding in Dirk's testimony beyond an embarrassing confirmation of Stacey's claim? After all, the real "trade secret" of SI was revealed on August 23rd, 2000 when Richard Hatch was declared the winner.
I didn't interview Stacey for my book until weeks after that. I didn't talk to Dirk until October, so why would CBS be concerned about what the two Castaways had told me? What was hiding behind the SURVIVOR "curtain?"
I spoke briefly to Dirk a few days after Stacey sued CBS and corroborated the allegations of producer "manipulation" that were in THE STINGRAY. Mr. Been confirmed for me the existence of the "smoking gun" letter and promised to tell the truth if called to testify in court.
Then a few weeks later, CBS struck back. Stacey was sued by SEG, Inc for breach of contract as a result of her interviews with me. THE STINGRAY was cited multiple times in their complaint. In effect, Stacey was being sued for blowing the whistle.
I wondered where Dirk Been would come down in all of this and I got an inkling on April 18th when I called him to get a comment on his deposition. He slammed the phone down and accused me of harassing him. Later on I got a call from his attorney, who threatened to sue me for "harassment" if I contacted Dirk without first talking to him or Dirk's publicist. That's right. The ex-Wisconsin dairy farm, rumored to be living in his car for a time, now has an expensive L.A. lawyer and a publicist.
So afraid that his purportedly truthful testimony about the behind-the-scenes of SURVIVOR will come out, Dirk has now filed a Motion For a Protective Order to keep his deposition and the exhibits secret. (CLICK TO READ).
In it Dirk sounds more like Greta Garbo than a game show contestant who thrust himself into the vortex of public scrutiny by applying to compete on SURVIVOR.
He says "In the days after Stacey Stillman filed her lawsuit against CBS and Mark Burnett, I was blitzed with telephone calls from reporters."
One example of what he calls "unwanted press intrusion" came, according to Dirk, when Pat O'Brien of Access Hollywood had the audacity to ask him questions about the Stillman lawsuit "while I was walking down the runway at the Grammy's ceremony in Los Angeles."
All of this sounds a bit ungrateful for a young man who, a year earlier was milking cows in Wisconsin. One wonders what he expected would happen when he got bitten by the vampire of fame.
Did he think that all of the questions from the media would be softballs like "Were you and Sean really best buds? or "What's your favorite bible character?" some of the questions I heard Dirk get the night of the Survivor Finale as he walked the friendly press gauntlet outside Studio 46 at CBS.
Perhaps the most telling thing in Dirk's declaration is his prediction about what would happen to his plans for an acting career if the word of his sworn testimony in the Stillman suit leaked out:
"I am pursuing a career as a performer," he wrote, "and I desire to maintain the confidentiality of my deposition testimony in order to protect my reputation in the entertainment field. I believe it would create significant professional embarrassment and hardship to reveal my private impressions on a production company and its production methods, and would also create an impression in the industry that I am uncooperative and cannot be trusted."
Wow,. Since when does telling the truth hurt your career in Hollywood? Waitâ€¦ I didn't say that. What a stupid question. Let me rephrase it:
If Mark Burnett didn't rig Stacey's ejection through Dirk, what does the ex- dairy farmer have to fear from any Tinseltown reprisals? Unlessâ€¦
Could Stacey be right? Is it possible that Dirk, a disciple of The Good Book, told the truth under oath and now he feels that if it comes out, it will damage his chances at casting calls?
I can understand why Dirk is so worried. I'm an investigative reporter. Whistle blowers are those courageous people who help us do the job of getting to the dark underbelly of any story. Typically, once a whistle blower talks, they're subject to reprisals by those they're attempting to expose.
Karen Silkwood learned that the hard way. So did Frank Serpico. Michael Mann co-wrote and directed an Oscar nominated movie THE INSIDER in which we saw, first hand, how tobacco company whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crow) lost his marriage and his career after standing up for what's right.
So I have empathy for Dirk. He's just a common man caught up in uncommon circumstances. Given the multi-million dollar stakes in all this, I'd expect him to be scared. But nobody forced him onto that island. He volunteered to get shipwrecked and if it turns out that he was drawn in to some kind of Stacey Stillman ejection plot, then he ought to own up to it.
Since I decided to write THE STINGRAY, my main purpose has been to get at the truth behind the most successful media phenomenon in recent history.
CBS has a battery of spin doctors working out of Television City to sell their version of that truth to the mainstream media.
But if the producers of SURVIVOR have violated FCC's regs or committed any "federal offense"(s) under the terms of their own Applicant's Agreement, the viewing public has a right to know.
That's why we went into court last week and filed a Motion To Unseal Dirk's deposition and all the exhibits including the alleged "smoking gun" letter. Once that happens we'll have a much better sense of whether Stacey's ejection was unlawful and we'll be closer to the truth of what really went on behind the scenes of the most successful summer series in broadcast history.
Who knows what will happen if it turns out that Stacey is right and her departure from SURVIVOR was "rigged." Will viewers turn it off? Will the FCC or federal prosecutors take action? It's doubtful, but the truth will be heard. A great justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Benjamin Cardozo once wrote that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."
On SURVIVOR what goes around, comes around.
It's time to let the light shine down on the events that took place on Day 9 on the island of Pulau Tiga in the South China Sea. When that happens, I can tell you for a fact that the real "sole Survivor" will be the truth. Stay tuned.