What Does the Decay of Journalism Have to Do with My Huge Appetite for Celebrity Gossip?
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"You're the problem," a male friend told me sternly a few weeks ago. I'm why the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer, why political apathy abounds, why environmental catastrophe looms. Because I, and people like me, read pop culture stories -- celebrity ones in particular. And because that's what more and more media are covering instead of what they "should" be (i.e. politics, the economy and international affairs). Hence, society is going to hell in a hand basket.
His criticism is equivalent to what gets posted in the comments sections of The Tyee and other news sites after almost any pop culture story. After blogging celeb Emily Gould's article " Exposed" ran in this weekend's New York Times Magazine (about the emotional trauma she experienced as a result of sharing too much of her and her friends' and boyfriends' lives online) many comments were variations on these ones: "Why is this important to me???????" and "I expect more from the New York Times."
Sure, it's true that there's no shortage of real, crucial issues right now. And I do read "serious" stories about them every day. But I am proud to say my reading diet includes far more stories that are considered to be the journalistic equivalent of genetically modified, non-organic candy corn.
I'm hardly alone. The readership numbers for pop culture stories -- which I count as celebrity, social trend, TV, music and film pieces in both blogs and traditional media -- are skyrocketing as readership of traditional news and newspapers is on the decline.
Talk among yourselves
It's not just democracy -- readers voting with their clicks -- that has convinced me about pop culture's worth. I actually think that much maligned celebrity "gossip" pieces can provide a rich forum for values debates. So I'm proud to say I know as much about the Greek drama of celebrity life as I do about the sub prime crisis or about the rising cost of oil. And I consider them to be not candy, but flavorful parts of the main course.
That's because pop culture journalism is like a misunderstood, blonde friend who seems air headed but actually gets the best marks in school, is the most fun to hang out with and the liveliest to talk to. That New York Times article by Emily Gould had 1212 comments posted after it by noon on Monday (before comments were closed). The most popular political op-ed column of the day had 102. That's not unusual.
And that pattern plays out in the real world, in my experience. Last week, at a dinner with some friends, I mentioned a story I'd read about peak oil and the impacts on flying. "Oh yeah?" said one smart, well-read friend. Then she told us about a recent flight she'd taken where the airline had lost her luggage. Later, I mentioned a story I'd read that listed " hippy-crite" celebs -- ones who say they're concerned about the environment but whose actions suggest otherwise. John Travolta recently said "everyone can do their bit" when it comes to global warming, but travels in his 150-passenger jet -- alone. Madonna headlined Al Gore's Live Earth concert in London but has $2 million invested in mining and oil exploration companies. Brad Pitt spearheads a green reconstruction project in the Hurricane Katrina-stricken Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans -- but flies in his private jet to and from meetings there.
The conversation about the environment, policy and personal responsibility lasted most of the evening. What are the worst environmental offenses? What's inexcusable and what's unavoidable? What should governments be doing and what's up to the individual?
Even the Emily Gould article is about the costs, benefits and limits of free speech, about censorship and privacy, about ethics in journalism. Did she go too far? What is too far? That's what people talk about.
Fame, fortune, families
Or how about this week's reports that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt bought a $60 million chateau in Provence, France: the perfect spot for Jolie to give birth to twins in a few months. Mention Canada's declining fertility rate or the fact that the housing affordability crisis means many middle class Canadians are finding breeding just too expensive and you'll get a few polite nods. But mention Brangelina's recent purchase, along with the fact that each of their children has a personal nanny, or that Angelina Jolie says she wants three more kids (becoming this generation's Mia Farrow), and people shout over each other to weigh in. People talk about the cost of children and the consumerism around it. Some say it's wrong for a mother of four young kids to star in three movies this year -- or to constantly uproot the kids to various houses and schools around the world as she does so.
To add to that, this week Jenna Jameson said that, inspired by Angelina Jolie, she's going to stay unmarried and " go for the babies." And Kirsten Davis, also inspired by Jolie, has said she might remain single but adopt a baby. In response to these stories, people I know talk about the value of marriage, about the ethics of having children vs. adoption in an overpopulated world, about the difficulty of being a single parent, about a woman's right to choose when she has kids and how, about childcare and about men's role in raising kids.
On the other hand, there's Arianna Huffington's blog post "unmasking" John McCain's record on reproductive rights. In short, he has a 25 year record of voting against a woman's right to choose, his website says he's against Roe vs. Wade, against insurance companies covering birth control, and only believes in abstinence-only education. This week, McCain appeared on Ellen and said that he wishes her well, but is against the fact that she's now legally allowed to marry her partner, Portia de Rossi, in California this summer. Pretty similar discussions happen as a result of discussing Jolie's choices and McCain's positions -- but I bet more people know about Jolie and more people discuss fertility, reproductive rights and marriage as a result.
I mention this to people who doubt the complexity of the values debate spurred by celebrities, and they don't tend to believe me. But the same or even more heated arguments transpire -- verbally and in the comments sections of news sites and blogs -- than political ones between insider politicos with brand name degrees. The difference is, pop culture readers accept that news readers read news, but not the other way around.
In fact, most of the people who are critical of my reading tendencies would be horrified to hear that they're being sexist or elitist -- but that's often the case. One friend who is a news addict (an admirable habit), said every woman he knows reads celebrity trash, and that every time he sees a tabloid around -- at home or work -- he throws it in the garbage where it belongs. He acknowledges men may read about sports, but says celebrities are far worse, and thinks women are slaves to powerful media companies (gosh). Another friend said that with two university degrees, I'm capable of understanding the news (read: unlike some people) so don't need to spend my time on trash. He meant well, but doesn't see his own bias.
Talking about patterns in pop culture is at least as useful a vehicle for social criticism than pure politics. It is politics. It's also democratic. Pop culture is popular not because it's dumb, but because it's usually about the crucial questions of life and society, told with interesting characters and a constantly updating, suspenseful storyline. And just like with Emily Gould's piece, pop culture pieces tend to get the big readership.
The Wright approach
Do I think all celebrity stories are valid and true? Well, I don't tend to trust anything with unnamed sources -- in news or pop culture. Do I think more media sites will start to publish only high readership pieces and ignore the news? Well, if they do, they'll lack credibility and lose readers who want a balanced diet. And don't tell me that I can't sample tabloid journalism without becoming its dupe. Some critical distance is the best stance when imbibing any form of journalism, including celebrity soap operas.
Do I think the current methods of gathering celeb news are OK? I have to admit, that like my other omnivorous eating habits, I eat meat but don't actually kill the animal myself. I've never stalked a celebrity or hung out with the paparazzi and don't plan to. In fact, I find the idea distasteful and would prefer that there were more ethical standards in place. There's more than enough fodder for discussion from what celebs say themselves on talk shows, statements, media conferences and premieres.
And as Lara Cohen, the news director at Us Weekly pointed out in her piece " Who Are You Calling a Tabloid?" a few weeks ago, political writers aren't exactly angelic. "To say the news media's coverage of Reverend Wright has been exhaustive is like saying that Us was mildly interested in Brad Pitt's split from Jennifer Aniston. The true hallmark of sensationalized journalism is ginning up controversy to drive sales. Wright's outbursts were the mainstream media's equivalent of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch -- a train wreck no one could turn away from. And so they milked it, regardless of the impact on the very race they were supposedly covering objectively."
At least I know what I'm eating.
Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond will continue to sift pop culture, sharing her schlock and awe in an occasional column.