The Culture of Celebrity

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Filed under: Media Literacy

oj-paris.jpgTV Reporting: Too much Paris, not enough news
by Leonard Pitts Jr.
The Miami Herald
June 20, 2007

One night 10 years ago, I found myself in a crazy place.

It was only the parking lot of a courthouse in Santa Monica, but craziness had come to that place on the wings of a jury verdict in the civil trial against O.J. Simpson. The Miami Herald had dispatched me there to gather color — i.e., anecdotes and imagery that gave a sense of what being there was like.

I found more color than a paint factory. A sky full of news helicopters. A guy with a guitar crooning Johnny B. Goode. An old lady chanting, ”O.J. is innocent!” People screaming right in each other’s faces for the benefit of TV cameras. A young woman fretting that she hoped she’d get a chance to scream, “murderer!”

”It’s weird,” Sidney Lee, an L.A. screenwriter, told me as we watched the crowd, ”because it’s not something that’s going to affect them. They’re not going to go to jail, they’re not going to get out of jail, they’re not going to have to pay.” These people, he said, would wake up the next morning and realize, “I guess it didn’t involve me, did it?”

But 10 years later, there has been no such realization. Ten years later, the Simpson trials seem less an aberration than a seminal moment in the de-evolution of TV news into something that might better be called “The News Show.”

And 10 years later, Stepha Henry is missing, and David Ovalle is livid.

Stepha or Paris?

She is a pretty, 22-year-old black girl from New York who came to Miami for Memorial Day — and disappeared. He is the Miami Herald reporter covering the story. In a June 8 entry on his blog, he explains that he was asked to go on MSNBC to talk about it. So he rushes to the studio, he’s all set to go . . . and the interview is canceled.

It seems there’s a new twist in the Paris Hilton traffic violations story, and the network needs to cut away to nonstop, eye-in-the-sky coverage. ”I’m through with cable TV news,” wrote Ovalle. “It’s a joke.”

I’m no fan of these damsel-in-distress stories about which TV news obsesses so obsessively. Still, it seems obvious that if your choice is between the airhead heiress and someone who is missing and maybe dead, you choose the latter. Does the world collapse if you get to the airhead heiress two minutes later?

Maybe. Because The News Show is predicated on news as entertainment, news as story arc, news as show complete with theme music and cool graphics, news as everything except, you know . . . news. Read the whole article here.

Editor’s note: In 1995, Joey Skaggs perpetrated an elaborate hoax called The Solomon Project, in which he claimed to have revamped the American judicial system. Posing as a AI scientist, he reported that, among other high profile cases, he had re-tried OJ Simpson and found him guilty. This was after the criminal trial but before the civil trial. His efforts did not win him any friends at CNN, who were completely fooled by the story, but it did serve to deliver his message about the judicial system and the culture of celebrity.