ELAYNE RIGGS: The last time I saw Paris
I think many of us suspect that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the fact that just about everybody reading this knows of the recent exploits of Paris Hilton. If you’re at all attuned to media old and new, it’s nearly impossible to escape the breathless news about her latest adventures in crime and punishment, or at least the breathless reprimands the news media give themselves over the saturation coverage — although heaven forfend most of them stoop to using the first-person plural and actually assuming responsibility! Even otherwise sensible pundits like Keith Olbermann (whose hard-hitting "Special Reports" many consider the modern incarnation of vaunted newsman Edward R. Murrow) can’t seem to stay away from peeping in on, and drooling over, daily celebrity hijinks.
Why the obsession? Well, the simple answer is ratings. Just as sex sells, so does fame — particularly the doings of people who are "famous for being famous." (Presumably they’re considered "fairer game" because, when well-known people with actual proven talents get into trouble, they tend to elicit more public sympathy based on those talents?) Sometime during the Reagan era, when cable was still young, the three major US news networks were acquired by corporate owners with little to no interest in providing public service, which was formerly understood and never questioned as being the point of news. Those corporate owners decided to make loss-leader news divisions into profit centers, gradually closed down local bureaus all over the world, and news became just another commercial product designed to grab eyeballs and ratings. With the proliferation of 24-hour cable news networks this downward slide into banality became an avalanche.
And it’s not like there isn’t enough interesting and entertaining stuff going on in the world to fill 24-hour news days. But even more important than ratings is the fact that corporate heads don’t want to take a chance on anything unproven or too far out of their comfort zone. The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is one of the more egregious examples of late; any opposition to continued and compounded illegalities in that region has been seen as not only out of the mainstream and therefore not fit for TV time, but as borderline unpatriotic and possibly treasonous to consider discussing in a public forum. Ironically, the few programs that have managed to slip through and present an alternative view to mainstream media war-whoops have garnered respectable ratings from an audience obviously weary of hearing only one side of things, the side that continually asks, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
Celebrity news falls deeply into these people’s comfort zone. Not only are corporate owners all rich (and mostly straight white men, which usually goes without saying but not here), but they often socialize with other rich people, many of whom are also celebrities. They want their public to care about the lifestyles of the rich and famous because they lead those lifestyles, and like to believe the public cares about them as much as they care about themselves.
Now of course, interest in the doings of the upper crust has been around probably for centuries. Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott riffed on this in a recent blog post: "I’m tired of Edith Piaf and her melancholy croakings, I’m tired of the legend of Josephine Baker taking Paris by storm, I’m fed up hearing and reading about the whole Coco Chanel saga — can’t somebody cook up some fresh nostalgia?" So this is nothing new; only the transmission media have changed. So why, in this age of so many different entertainment choices that we’ve lost track of the number of ways in which we amuse ourselves to death, does it seem like this sort of collective fascination is more prevalent than ever before?
Part of it is a version of the old expression that every generation thinks they’ve invented sex or rebellion, they’re the first ones to think of any number of things that aren’t new under the sun. So naturally Now More Than Ever our media are this, that and the other thing. But I think another part of it is the contribution of the new media. It’s harder these days (Now More Than Ever!) for an active ‘net surfer to narrow the spectrum of what reaches his or her eyeballs from the rest of the world, where disappeared news bureaus have been replaced by citizen eyewitnesses with camera phones and YouTube accounts.
Oh sure, you can specialize — you have to, there’s just not enough hours in the day to take an active interest in everything — but stuff creeps through, particularly stuff that’s repeated ad nauseum. And that’s what the folks who sell you news (and propaganda) count on, that just as a lie repeated often enough becomes received wisdom and truth, a triviality repeated often enough becomes of vital importance. Especially when it involves someone who, in the end, doesn’t really matter to your life.
We can’t hear day after day about death in Iraq or Darfur or New Orleans. We understand that’s the news we ought to care about, but it’s sad and serious and one more thing to weigh us down when we’re just trying to survive and, damn it, we don’t have the power to change it and it’s all so overwhelming. But a rich white girl gone missing or gone bad? Unless we’re related to her, we have no real stake in the outcome of her story. We may mouth platitudes of sympathy to the rich white girl’s family, but we secretly relish in her story precisely because it’s trivial to us. It distracts us not only from the sad and serious in the world, but in our own lives. Part of us wants to be like her — to quote Peter Stone’s script from 1776, which I often do, "Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor" — but part of us is damn glad we’re not. It’s not so much schadenfreude as pure escapism, from our jobs and our failures and our daily struggles, and the people who bring us saturation coverage understand that (and capitalize on it) very well.
Besides, some celebrities make it way too easy.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix’s news editor, and it seems to her certain celebs are living their lives like candles in the wind. After all, all the papers had to say was that Anna Nicole was found in the nude…