Dirk Says Mark Burnett Was Definitely 'Cheating'by David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
Well, this will teach me to take off a holiday weekend – as soon as I left town, Dirk Been’s testimony relating to Stacey’s Survivor lawsuit and the countersuit was released. But, frankly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. No, I’m not saying that CBS is spying on me in particular (though, who knows, that could be their next reality show); but they released the testimony at the beginning of a holiday weekend, knowing full well that people would pay less attention to it than if it had been released at some other time. And they were right. I didn’t even learn about it until I started going through my weekend newspapers and found a short – and not terribly insightful – article about it buried in the Chicago Tribune. Indeed, almost every article I’ve seen has missed most of the big picture here. I rather suspect they didn’t take the time to read the 205-page transcript and just went by the press releases.
After actually reading the entire transcript, I have to wonder what CBS public relations people were smoking when they put out their press release. I mean, sure they would be expected to put their spin on things, but did they also expect that nobody would bother to read the document from which they were quoting things out of context?
CBS repeatedly talks about how Dirk denied any “manipulation.” Yes, he did. But even their release admits he says he was improperly “influenced” by Burnett. He even goes so far as to say that he considers what Burnett did to be “cheating” (more on that later). But since this war of words has turned into a nitpicky fight over “manipulation” vs. “influence,” let’s try to figure out what the difference is.
According to Webster’s New World Dictionary (Third College Edition), manipulate means (in the definition that applies here): “to manage or control artfully or by shrewd use of influence, often in an unfair or fraudulent way.” Influence means (again, in the definition that applies here): “have an effect on the nature, behavior, development, action, or thought of.” The noun form of the word talks about “the power of person or things to affect others” and “the ability of a person or group to produce effects indirectly by means of power based on wealth, high position, etc.” So, looking at these, it seems that CBS and Survivor is trying to avoid the “unfair or fraudulent” part of the definition of the word, “manipulate.” And Dirk did indeed deny that “manipulation” was a fair description. But I have to wonder if he studied the dictionary before he said that.
Dirk’s testimony does indeed say, numerous times, that Executive Producer Mark Burnett influenced him and the game overall. So, we have that part of the definition of “manipulate.” Now let’s see what he has to say about whether he thinks Burnett managed or controlled the game, especially in an unfair or fraudulent way.
This is actually quite easy to do after looking at everything discussed in the transcript. First let’s look at what he had to say about what went on, and then we’ll address the terminology issue again.
According to Dirk, he was approached by Mark Burnett after the Tagi tribe lost the immunity challenge requiring them to “rescue” one of their teammates from the jungle. Dirk says they “had a very short and to the point conversation” in which “he just basically made the point to me that Rudy Boesch, another contestant in the show, the type of skills that he brings and his abilities are going to be very important down the road … the best thing that could be done for you would be to form an alliance against Stacey and vote Stacey off because Rudy is the guy that you will need in the future.” (p. 32-32)
Dirk says he looked at Burnett as “somebody who knew everything, and for whatever reason he was giving you an answer or giving you a key to success.” (p. 36) Until that point, Dirk says he had been leaning towards voting against Rudy and, indeed, he later adds that “The idea of voting Stacey off, in my mind, had not entered my mind until I had that discussion with Mark.” (p. 44)
He says he then saw Burnett go over and appear to have the same conversation with Sean – something that Sean later confirmed but now denies. The two of them talked and decided to vote against Stacey instead of Rudy. This is another point the CBS press release tries to gloss over. They note in the release that “because Mr. Stillman was voted off by a 5-2 vote, even if he had changed his own vote” she still would have been removed. True. But if both he and Sean had voted for Rudy, as originally planned, Rudy would have lost by a 4-3 vote.
While Dirk does take responsibility for his vote – he says nobody put a gun to his head or anything – he did it “directly because of the influence of Mark Burnett.” (p. 67)
But Burnett’s actions with regard to Stacey is only part of the story here. Dirk further testifies that a crew member talked to him after he was booted and said that Burnett had planned to put fish into some fish traps for the tribe. Furthermore, he says that the tapioca that they ate was not native to the island but had been placed there by the producers for the contestants to find – as was some sugar cane.
Also, Dirk relates a story about one of the challenges in which he says there was no way the Tagi tribe could have won. The challenge in question was the one in which Kelly, a professional rafter, had to row a canoe against Gervase, who couldn’t even swim. They had to run a course and pick up the rest of their teammates in order to finish. But Dirk says they were told ahead of time that the canoe might not be able to hold everybody because of the weight, and so Kelly might have to pick some people up, drop them off at shore, and then go back.
Dirk notes that the Tagi tribe was somewhat heavier than the Pagong, what with Rich and Sue and all. He feels that the production crew had to know the weight limit of the canoes because they always tested everything before the actual challenges. Yet the Pagong tribe all fit into the canoe without a problem; when all of the Tagi tribe were onboard, the canoe “swamped and went under.” (p. 71-2) So even if Kelly had taken a lead in this challenge, Dirk says there’s no way Tagi could have won. In other words, the challenge was fixed such that Pagong would almost certainly win.
Dirk also relates a story about how Rudy joined the Tagi alliance that eventually took him to the final three. According to his testimony, Rudy didn’t want to be in the alliance until Burnett told him that this was the best way to survive. He further discusses that Rudy and Burnett knew each other from Burnett’s earlier show, Eco-Challenge, and that this “seemed kind of unfair to me.” (p. 77)
Finally, he talks about an incident that happened much later – in the final four – when a cameraman was allegedly sneaking food to somebody and Burnett met with the final four and they agreed never to speak of it again.
Dirk even discusses some of the little things that Burnett did that affected the game. For example, Burnett would come over to the Tagi tribe (and possible Pagong as well, but Dirk doesn’t know for sure) and discuss what was going on with the other group. For example, a number of people following the show wondered how Tagi seemed to know so much about Pagong’s laziness. Well, the reason is that Burnett told them, says Dirk. This is information that Tagi should not have had, and might have affected the outcome of the game.
After Survivor began airing and the episode in which Dirk was to be voted off was about to air, Burnett denied to Dirk that the conversation about Stacey ever even happened. From there, he went to suggest to Dirk that the best way for him to make money off of endorsements and the like is for Dirk to be upbeat about the experience. To put it bluntly, Dirk’s description makes it look like Burnett tried to buy his silence.
But what was he trying to buy, exactly? Was there “manipulation” or “influence”? As noted earlier, Dirk didn’t want to use the word “manipulation,” but was that really what it was? Well, Dirk talks at length about the way Burnett controlled the game and did so in an unfair manner. Some examples include when Dirk says, “it began at that point to become aware to me … that the producers were involved in the game in such a manner that to me it seemed that maybe there was manipulation or that – I don’t know if manipulation is the right word, but there was influence … That – and they were trying to program things in a certain way and they had an idea how the game should go, instead of just actually what happened.” (p. 60) Later he adds, “I just felt like I had been lied to about what was really going to happen.” (p. 61) And he says Burnett had “ulterior motives” in his various actions (p. 67-8)
After discussing some of the other issues mentioned above, Dirk says “there was influence instead of just maybe accidents that happened … they were planned out, influential things, so that maybe people that Mark thought or judged as … better TV … those were the people that he made an effort to keep on the show for a longer period of time. Not that Mark controlled votes in any way, but that he had an influence on who was voting.” (p. 73) He characterized his chance at staying on the show as “instead of a battle against other people, myself, Mother Nature, … my biggest job was to impress Mark Burnett as being someone that was going to produce a good TV show for him.” (p. 74) He follows up later by saying that he would have had to impress Burnett because, “if he wanted to keep me around … then he would have worked in my behalf as maybe I believe he worked in Richard – or Rudy Boesch’s behalf.” (p. 187)
Dirk also indicates that, to him, it was clear that “this was something that [Burnett] had planned to do. … That he had planned to have this type of influence. … That he believed that certain people would make a better TV show than others, and he did what he could to have influence over those people staying on the island.” (p. 81-2) He adds, “I end up feeling like I was just a toy or something that was going to be used to help him get to a certain place, not a contestant brought in with the opportunity to win a game.” (p. 83)
Dirk concludes one line of questioning by saying that “Mark Burnett … was purposely influencing the game for whatever his motives might have been.” (p. 119) In a later group of questions, he gives perhaps the most damning statement and says that as far as Burnett telling him to vote against Stacey, he “would definitely consider that cheating.” (p. 197)
Finally, in summing up his letter to Burnett about his feelings of the show, Dirk says he didn’t know there would be such influence when he signed up for the show and “I felt that influence affected the outcome of the game in an unfair manner.” (p. 202)
So, we have all the necessary elements for “manipulation.” We have improper influence, control, unfairness, etc. Whether Dirk wanted to use the term or not, it seems obvious from his own testimony that “manipulation” is exactly what he described.
One question, of course, is why Dirk would lie if, as Burnett claims, none of this happened. From all indications, Dirk is a deeply religious man who is truly opposed to lying. While a CBS attorney tried to make a point in questioning Dirk about when he exaggerated his ability to start a fire from scratch when talking to his tribemates, it really looked like grasping at straws. Dirk has nothing whatsoever to gain by making these stories up. In fact, he has a lot to lose – as was evidenced by his attempts to keep his testimony sealed. He is trying to make it in Hollywood, and testifying against CBS and the producer of the biggest show on TV right now is not the way to get good acting jobs.
Mark Burnett, of course, has a lot of reasons to lie – and they’re all heading towards his bank account. What of the other contestants who have contradicted his account of events? Well, Sean was the only one who would have had a similar conversation with Mark Burnett, and he is working in show business right now – which appears to have been his main goal in going on the show. It would not go well for him if he went along with Dirk. As for the others, they may simply be unaware of what went on.
It comes down to Dirk’s word against those of Mark Burnett and Sean. Dirk has nothing to gain and everything to lose by telling the truth. I’ve got to go with what Dirk has said here, barring any new evidence. If Dirk is lying, he would be lying not just about the discussion with Burnett, but about discussions with Sean, about follow-up discussions with Burnett, about why he wrote his letter complaining to Burnett, and pretty much about everything that has happened since then. It would be quite a feat to keep it all straight. Certainly, CBS’s attempt to spin the story their way in the face of a huge amount of damning evidence does not make me want to side with them.
So it’s no wonder CBS and Survivor wanted to keep this testimony under wraps and then, when it was obvious they couldn’t, they released it going into a busy holiday weekend. Dirk’s testimony gives a lot of weight to what Stacey Stillman has alleged in her lawsuit, and to what investigative reporter Peter Lance had originally brought forth in his book, The Stingray (click here for our full review). While it may not win Stacey’s lawsuit for her, it certainly makes it much more difficult for CBS to simply blow off the allegations, as they’ve tried to do up until now.
Somebody has a lot of explaining to do – unless, of course, they are content to allow Mark Burnett to be known as a cheater in his own game.
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(You can find the full 205-page transcript of Dirk’s testimony here, in PDF format.)