Is ‘Missing Richard Simmons’ good journalism? Does it matter?

In Tuesday’s New York Times, journalist Amanda Hess attempted to deconstruct the force that propels narratives like the “disappearance” of Richard Simmons to the fore of the podcast phenomenon.

The yarn goes like this: after spending decades in the limelight as a fitness guru/celebrity motivational coach-friend to anyone who might need him, Richard Simmons just stopped showing up to life. Dan Taberski, an acquaintance of Simmons, was curious about the exercise magnate’s abrupt retreat from his regular routines, so he decided to go forth and make several hours of skillfully produced radio on the topic for the podcast “Missing Richard Simmons.”

Hess parsed through the discomfort I felt as I listened to Taberski’s  narrative:

In a forthcoming episode, Mr. Taberski digs into a tabloid report that Mr. Simmons is transitioning to female. He takes a moment to note that Mr. Simmons’s gender identity is nobody’s business but his own, then forges right ahead. Mr. Taberski ultimately decides that the report is false — Mr. Simmons himself rebutted the story on Facebook — but regardless of its veracity, it feels exploitative to spread it while simultaneously championing the podcast’s great respect for Mr. Simmons’s privacy. A serious journalistic transgression — outing a person — is played here as just another sensational twist to be picked apart for podcast fodder.

I stopped listening to “Missing Richard Simmons” after one episode for several reasons. The show is clearly meant to fit within the “true crime” genre, which picks apart horrific things that happen to strangers for the purpose of titillating bored office drones (not my thing).

On top of that (and this is a point that Hess addresses specifically), Taberski positions himself as a concerned friend of Simmons who only has his best interests at heart. Even the title of the show hints at the uneasy grey area between friendship and journalistic instinct. Does Taberski really miss Simmons, or is Simmons just missing? Furthermore, does it matter?

Creative people often gravitate towards chaos and disaster, either to capture it, or in some way, participate. My issue in particular has less to do with Taberski’s drive to understand Simmons; my problem lies more with the fact that he did only a so-so job.

It was clear to me after listening to five minutes of this show that Simmons was simply tapped out. After spending years giving himself completely to anyone who asked, running emotionally grueling exercise classes, and hamming for the camera, the dude was just done. That’s it.

Ultimately, “Missing Richard Simmons” commits no egregious ethical sins but it simply hangs in space; a mystery podcast with no central mystery. What a drag.

[photo: Getty]