Celebri-spiral™: Enough Already

Our culture is in a celebri-spiral. We're conflicted over our ridiculous, growing celebrity culture consumption via magazines, websites, and TV shows. In 2007, my love/hate conflict made me take to the blog-o-sphere. All writing on this site © Dave Singleton 2009.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

February 15, 2007: Anna Nicole and Round-The-Clock Coverage

If you weren't having a celebri-spiral before, chances are you've relapsed like I have with Anna Nicole Smith's death.

It's terrible. I'm following every detail with the suspicious and unending zeal of...well, I'll just say it: Nancy Grace.

It started within minutes of her collapse in the Florida Hard Rock Hotel. Of course, the story has sex, money, death, drugs...all the stuff of a steamy novel. It makes regular news seem so boring, no? No wonder the Iraq war has fallen off the top stories list on CNN. The most grateful person in the nation right now has to be Lisa Nowak, NASA's fatal attraction poster girl, who has been granted a media reprieve to, hopefully, check herself into pepper-spray-diaper-misuse-and-jealousy-issues rehab.

The Anna story, and its players, are fascinating. The legal issues surrounding this woman's messy life may, indeed, be precedent-setting. But I am more interested in the media coverage, and how over-the-top it is. Want to see a journalist crossing the line? Look no further than Mark Steines of Entertainment Tonight, who traveled with Howard K. Stern back to the Bahamas and filmed his reunion with Anna's child and his feelings about the media blitz and what will happen next to Anna's body, estate, and legacy. ET and Mark have been on the scene with Anna and Howard for over a year, chronicling every birth, death, and feud. ET defiantly claims it doesn't pay for interviews, but doesn't answer whether or not they pay for videotapes and photographs, both of which have played a huge part in ET's Anna Nicole coverage. Media blood money is changing hands. You just know it.

Every news organization is angling for a hook. Estranged mother Virgie Arthur is in Good Morning America's backpocket. Access Hollywood is so pissed to be left without a major player that its angle is who's making money off of dead Anna Nicole? Larry King, Nancy Grace, and other television news arbiters have spotlighted so-called "Anna friends" whose credibility would be questioned by anyone not desperate for a hook.

Pressure, pressure, pressure all around. But what does all this media pressure mean for us?

In his Media Mix column, Peter Johnson cites the media debate, especially this aspect which I think is so relevant:

These days, all media are under increasing competitive pressure from 24-hour cable news and websites, and that means paying close attention to pop culture — in all its forms.

Some media critics decry the media's obsession with Smith and her death. But as coverage of entertainment and scandal stories plays an increasingly important role in modern-day journalism, those who practice it are increasingly unapologetic about the time and resources they devote to such stories.

"No matter what you thought of her bizarre life, which we covered little of in recent months, her death was untimely and stunning," says Jim Murphy, executive producer of Good Morning America. "The story of what she represented, an overexposed personal life, is very much a part of the American story today."

Says Robert Lichter, a George Mason University journalism professor: "Media now seek out the lowest common denominator, and Smith was the lowest common denominator." But Lichter understands her appeal. "The media can't resist when something serious happens to someone frivolous. She had everything the media look for in a story: money, sex and dieting. Her death is so irresistible because it lets people mourn and gloat at the same time."

What it means is endless coverage, not prioritized well, and certainly not objective. How did we get here?

The answer is complex, but Tim Rutten, in his Regarding Media column that ran in The Los Angeles Times, asked the pertinent question: how did Smith's death hit page 1? What I found most notable in his essay is the fact that serious news outlets increasingly rely on Internet traffic to determine top coverage worthiness:

He writes: "The late Murray Kempton once described editorial writers as 'the people who come down from the hill after the battle to shoot the wounded.' Nowadays, media analysts are the guys who follow behind them, going through the pockets of the dead looking for loose change...The mainstream journalistic coverage of Smith's death is among the first such stories driven, in large part, by an editorial perception of public interest derived mainly from Internet traffic. Throughout the afternoon Thursday, editors across the country watched the number of "hits" recorded for online items about Smith's death. These days, it's the rare newspaper whose meeting to discuss the content of the next day's edition doesn't include a recitation of the most popular stories on the paper's website. It's a safe bet that those numbers helped shove Anna Nicole Smith onto a lot of front pages. What makes this of more than passing interest is that serious American journalism is in the process of transforming itself into a new, hybrid news medium that combines traditional print and broadcast with a more purposefully articulated online presence. One of the latter's most seductive attributes is its ability to gauge readers' appetites for a particular story on a minute-to-minute basis. What you get is something like the familiar television ratings—though constantly updated, if you choose to treat them that way."

Earlier this week, I wrote about a covert example of journalists crossing the line of objectivity and how celebrity trumps the old rules of what's fit to print or air. Anna's story is the most obvious extreme we've had in years.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's next - comparing Anna Nicole Smith to Marilyn Monroe? She is equivalent to the trash that Britney Spears can't throw out! Who CARES?!

Saturday, February 17, 2007 7:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comparing Anna Nicole to Marilyn is so last week's Larry King show. It's been done, and Celebri-spiral notes the absurd difference.

Who cares? Um, the 50 million people tuning in to watch, read, and listen to coverage must. I am not saying it's a good sign.

Sunday, February 18, 2007 12:54:00 PM  

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