Celebrity Media, Heal Thyself

Anyone whose remote control wandered past an ABC, CBS, or NBC morning "news" show on May 5 probably found the "news" hounds barking enthusiastically over this supposed "news" scoop: Paris Hilton was sentenced to Los Angeles County jail for 45 days. She violated parole after repeated episodes of reckless driving. This was news of national concern.

The morning anchors interviewed legal experts and professional Hollywood celebrity-stalkers to lament this heiress being brought low, complete with bad jokes about the jail being a "one-star Hilton." But they all wondered out loud: Who is to blame for this human train wreck?

Paris, being the thoughtless egotist that she is, blamed her publicist for telling her she could drive to work. That's baloney. You don't assign the "help" to read your legal documents for you.

Some blame the mother for botching the upbringing. No one's denying that Mama Hilton is a disgraceful figure in her own right, but that's still baloney. Paris is 26 years old, and perfectly capable of messing up her own life.

Obviously, Paris ought to take responsibility for her own actions and stop living up to every cartoonish notion of clueless celebrity life. But there's a problem. Being a cartoonish notion of cluelessness is exactly what made her a household name, courtesy of the voyeuristic press. The media's celebrity exploitation machine needs to be denounced, both for its promotion of the raunchy underbelly of American pop culture and its hypocrisy for feigning concern over the damage Paris Hilton is doing to it.

Who is Paris Hilton? What is her claim to fame? She is utterly unaccomplished. She has done nothing but be rich, pretty, blonde, wild, and very, very stupid. She first surfaced in an unauthorized sex tape. ABC says it became "one of the best-selling porn videos of all time." From there, it was the surreal world of "reality" TV, and Fox's The Simple Life, where Paris and her friend Nicole Richie made themselves famous as amoral nitwits.

Then everyone got involved: the ever-hungry Hollywood celebrity media, the cable and broadcast news channels, and finally the advertisers (remember the infamous slutty Carl's Jr./Hardee's hamburger commercials?). The irony is that most of the "news" coverage came attached with a superiority complex, judging and mocking Paris as a negative role model for young girls. That she certainly is. But how cynical can our national media get?

Just see the gleeful reaction of Janice Min of Us Weekly when asked to assess troubled Miss Hilton for USA Today: "She had been out of the headlines for a few months, which in her world is an eternity. Headlines are her oxygen…She knows no shame, and that's why we keep watching. People like to watch people they don't like even more than watching people they do like." An Us Weekly poll of readers showed 80% of them wanted Paris in the slammer. Then they'll demand every inglorious detail, which Us Weekly will gladly provide.

Back in January, ABC's 20/20 acted shocked when man-on-the-street interviews revealed that nobody knew who cured polio, but many could name Nicole Richie's best friend. Earth to ABC: did you ever think this could be your fault? This was the first time Jonas Salk had been mentioned on ABC… in the 21st century.

In the meantime, Paris Hilton has been mentioned in thousands of stories. She is so famous and omnipresent in the celebrity media that she's become a rich-brat pop-culture reference point. Paris Hilton was the number one "Google News" search of 2006.

Why can't the celebrity-obsessed media turn it off? If they can't just say no, then they should stop judging her, lest they be judged. There should be a national conversation about the media's role, and they should be convicted in the court of public opinion for enabling decadence. They are not really scolds and moralists. They are guttersnipes, feeding their audience a constant diet of "news" designed to build that rooting interest in the next perverse pratfall.

Look no further than a publicist named Ken Sunshine on NBC: "I think we want her to be more outrageous. We want her to get into more trouble. We want her to flaunt everything all the way. So, if anything, we want more Paris, not less Paris."

But the celebrity-exploiters raised her up to the pinnacle of fame. Without the spotlight, she might still be rich, pretty, blonde, wild, and very, very stupid. But once this cartoon character has been created, there is an expectation that this is what she's been put on Earth to accomplish. She needs to implode so the rest of us can wallow in her misfortune.

The media won't stop, and neither will Paris Hilton. Just watch. She'll want to play this sordid game until she's the next Anna Nicole Smith.

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  • Guest

    It isn't just the media that's "celebrity obsessed." Historian Daniel Boorstin in his prescient book The Image published over 45 years ago predicted just such a phemomenon in American culture. (If I were chair of a humanities department at a major university–or an institution of higher learning of any size– I would make this book required reading. Even though it was written in the early '60's it's insights are as fresh as today's headlines and no less relevant.)

    Fact is, here in America "the public" can't get enough of their celebrities. Half of our news anymore obsesses over the travails and comings and goings of Brittney, Paris, Lindsay, J-Lo, Brangelina (see, I didn't even have to use any last names and their images immediately fired through your neural cellsTongue out). When the embryonic stem cell crowd wanted to sway public opinion to its side of the arguement, where did they turn? Cutting edge biotech researchers? No. They trotted out celebrities to star in expensive TV ads or testify in front of Congress touting the benefits of using embryonic stem cells to treat diseases. Still sceptical? Name one prominent scientist who has publicly come out in favor of HESCR. Now name a celebrity who has done the same. Right of the top of my head I can name three (the late actor Christopher Reeves, Cheryl Crowe, and Michael J. Fox). There may be others, but then again, as a matter of principal I don't watch television (well, OK, PBS and EWTN now and then). I rest my case.

  • Guest

    Dennis, you make a lot of good points.  I have never been into People Magazine, Entertainment Tonight, etc, but you and I are in the minority.  Most Americans are fascinated by celebrities.  I have never understood the attraction.

  • Guest

    Maybe since we have no monarchy in the US, we create our own.

  • Guest

    Well, I can sort of understand this celeb-worship.  It reminds me of high school, where along with the other girls in my class I was the same way — couldn't get enough news about my favourite actors, singers, etc.  The thing was, I grew out of it.  The North American public seems to have become stuck in this adolescent, voyeuristic attitude.  In the early '60s, our style icons were at least classy:  Jacqueline Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, etc.  Women who exploited their sexuality (e.g., Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, etc.) were considered rather "trashy", and were looked down upon.  The opposite seems to be true now — the trashier, the better.  And the idols of today look like little boys to me, so different from people like Cary Grant and Bogart, who at least conveyed the impression of being grown up, and always appeared in public dressed to the nines, not looking as if they just rolled out of bed after a night on the town and grabbed the first thing they found on the floor.  As Cicero said in 63 BC, "O tempora, o mores!"

  • Guest

    Give stupidity the microphone.  It is much better than knowledge and truth.

    Take pictures of sluts.  It is much better than purity and beauty.

    Push the envelope.  It is much better than playing it safe.

    Fallen human nature magnified … technology extends the human spirit and it had to go this way.  There is no other way. 

    Money.

    We need to be saved, in spite of our selves.  Thank God for Jesus, our savior.  I need the eucharist because I am human.

    Spooky.

  • Guest

    The attraction, Claire, is that everybody secretly imagines that someday, they too will achieve celebrity status (either through legit achievement or notoriety). Witness the tremendous success of internet outlets like MySpace and YouTube. Narcissism run totally amuck through mass media. The poor man's network TV debut. And as gk has observed, the more stupid, the more slut, which often results in more hits

    A more macabre, ghoulish example found tragic expression in the insane rants of a bitter and alientated college student named Cho Seung-Hui. Apollyon with a human face, brought to you courtesy of MSNBC. 

    I digress: T.S. Eliot wrote the world would end "not with a bang, but a whimper." No doubt somebody with a videocam will be there to record it so we can relive it over and over on YouTube for years to come. 

  • Guest

    Chloesmom,

         You're right:  the point is that you outgrew the celebrity worship, while many of our adult peers still act like teenagers.  In my workplace, every morning the hot topic of conversation is what's going on on Idol, Desperate Housewives, etc.  I was never into any of that, even as a teenager, so I continuously feel like an outsider during these endless discussions.  I agree with both PTR and Dennis that it is part narcissism, part wanting to create our own monarchy (hero worship).   Maybe if people worshiped God more, this wouldn't be so predominant. 

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