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  Randal's Choice
by Andy Dehnart
Randal Pinkett is, without question, the most qualified candidate to be ever named Donald Trump's "Apprentice." Why, then, has the finale of "The Apprentice," when Randal was hired, resulted in vibrant discussion, angry conflict, and vehement debate?

It’s because, during the final few minutes of the live “Apprentice” finale, Donald Trump first hired Randal, and then interrupted Randal’s celebration to ask if the other finalist, Rebecca Jarvis, should also be hired.

Randal’s immediate response was to point out the definite article in the show’s title. “Mr. Trump, I firmly believe that this is ‘The Apprentice,’ that there is one and only one apprentice, and if you’re going to hire someone tonight, it should be one,” Randal said. He added, “No, not tonight.”

Trump has since said that he planned to hire both of the finalists, but as he told the New York Daily News, “I felt Randal should at least have a say.” Randal’s decision, Trump said, “surprised” him, “because I think most people would have said hire Rebecca, too.” Trump added, “It shows he’s certainly an independent thinker.”

But why even ask Randal at all, putting him in an awkward position while he should have been celebrating his victory? If Trump had planned to hire both, why just hire one first and then lay the blame for the hiring (or not) of the other on that person? This was, of course, little more than a made-for-reality TV moment: There’s one outcome, but wait, here comes a twist! But Trump’s twist backfired, because it ended up changing the way people perceived Randal’s win.

I was one of those people, reacting only to Randal’s choice in an essay that I wrote immediately after the show. Randal impressed me throughout the season; I was thrilled that there was finally a candidate who was both competent and had genuine integrity. No candidate, it seems, has been more liked by his fellow competitors than Randal. Thus, I was surprised by his decision and reacted emotionally to it, calling it “selfish,” which was a poor word to use. “Surprised” and “disappointed” would have been more accurate. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Randal acted just as a young Trump might have, and Trump has since expressed his admiration for Randal’s decision.

The one thing that’s perfectly clear, though, particularly in retrospect, is that it was highly unfortunate that this occurred at the same time Trump hired his first non-white apprentice. For many people, particularly those of color who have had experiences markedly different than mine, it’s impossible to not see an undercurrent of racist behavior, if not overt racism, in the show’s conclusion. Moments after the first black candidate is hired, he’s asked to share his win with a white candidate? Historically, asking a black candidate to share a title fits with examples of black Americans being recognized but only with whites at their side. This didn’t occur to me in the moments following the finale, nor did I recognize the unfairness of Trump’s question; I saw only a candidate I respected make a decision that I didn’t agree with.

Was it just a coincidence that, upon selecting his first black Apprentice, Donald Trump asked that apprentice to share his prize? Or was this racism, either overt or unintentional, yet another example of white America refusing to acknowledge a black person’s success? And was reacting negatively to Randal’s decision another example of conscious or unconscious racism?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, which are being debated and discussed online and elsewhere. However, the finale has left other, more concretely debatable points in its wake.

For one, many have argued that hiring two candidates would go against the show’s premise, as Randal said, and that there should be only one winner. But there basically aren’t any rules on “The Apprentice.” As we’ve seen over four seasons, the only rule is that whatever Trump wants to do, he does it. He usually fires on person every week; this season, he dismissed four at once. And just because Trump didn’t offer Kwame Jackson or Tana Goertz a job during the first or third-season finales doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have.

This is a job interview, not a sporting event, so it seems plausible that more than one person could be hired. Similarly, others argue that hiring two would be an example of some kind of liberal no-winners-no-losers orthodoxy. But that assumes Donald Trump has anything other than ratings (and thus money) in mind when he makes these decisions.

The other point of contention is whether Rebecca even deserved to be hired alongside Randal. Certainly, on paper, Randal’s education and work history make him far more qualified than Rebecca; he holds five academic degrees, including a PhD from MIT. In addition, his quantitative performance during the season was better than Rebecca’s; as a project manager he won three times and lost none, while she lost twice and won once. Rebecca was called back into the boardroom three times, twice as PM, and both of those times, Randal went into the boardroom with her.

Over four seasons, however, we’ve seen that Trump doesn’t always reward credentials or long-term performance; in fact, what he’s looking for, exactly, is ambiguous at best. He constantly makes arbitrary and capricious decisions, dumping qualified candidates for making a simple mistake. One week he praises one sort of behavior, and the next week he fires someone for doing the same thing. When analyzing the outcome of the show, one has to take Trump’s decision-making into account, and that’s about as predictable as Trump’s hair in hurricane-force wind. While Randal might have seemed the obvious choice, Trump has done everything except make obvious choices for more than 60 episodes.

On the last task, both Randal and Rebecca made mistakes. The penultimate episode of “The Apprentice 4” was clearly edited to suggest that Rebecca was handling her task more competently, but during the finale, Randal recovered while Rebecca’s event seemed headed for disaster.

Some argue that Rebecca screwed up more by not raising money for the charity, but she also did so because her event’s sponsor, Yahoo!, asked her not to. While she was questioned about this, the blame seemed to be placed on Yahoo!, as exemplified by Trump’s boardroom speech that Yahoo! should donate money to the charity (which, as we saw, they did). In addition, Trump has repeatedly stressed the importance of listening to the client, and Rebecca certainly did that. She did, however, ignore another, the charity. Ultimately, it comes down to Trump’s random decision-making, but this time, Trump showed growth, saying during the final boardroom that while he wasn’t as impressed with Randal on the final task as he was with him all season, Randal was hired anyway.

However Randal and Rebecca’s performance is judged, there didn’t seem to be a reason to fire Rebecca. Trump was impressed by both candidates throughout the entire season, and both had markedly different strengths. Rebecca, for example, defended Toral, who Trump hated, but Trump repeatedly proclaimed his respect for Rebecca’s loyalty.

Whatever decision viewers think Trump should have made, this is at the core of all reality television finales; rarely does someone win and everyone agrees that they should be the winner. That’s what makes reality TV so addictive and absorbing. Might our responses reveal certain prejudices? Perhaps. In any case, Trump did hire a candidate who is extremely qualified and easily outshines the last three winners. And Rebecca will have a successful career.

Last season, I expressed my frustration with Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that he had two strong final candidates. And since so many signs these past few weeks pointed to Trump’s unabashed admiration for both candidates, I assumed the finale was headed in that direction. So, apparently, did many people in the live studio audience and at home. I, for one, was thrilled that Trump was finally about to abandon his faulty logic and not construct some kind of false dichotomy. But rather than step up, Trump let that decision unfairly fall upon Randal’s shoulders, and I blamed Randal for preventing the show from having the outcome I’d predicted it would.

What I and many others didn’t predict was that this whole sequence of events was viewed in a markedly different way by many people. We watch these shows with through the lenses of our own experiences, and that affects our reactions. Those reactions will be debated for weeks and months to come.

Still, the finale of this season of “The Apprentice,” and the ensuing discussion and debate, has made us examine our reactions and our society’s lingering prejudices. That is a testament to the power of reality television to not only entertain our society, but to reflect it. | 20 December 2005

Andy Dehnart is editor of reality blurred.

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