Anna Nicole and Britney? Yes, they are news
The media need to get past the sensationalism and focus more deeply on the substantive elements. There are legitimate issues in these stories.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 27, 2007
It was a simple manifesto, posted in haste last week to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams' Web log, the Daily Nightly.
"Viewer warning: There will be no mention of Britney Spears' baldness or rehab in tonight's broadcast, nor will there be any mention of Anna Nicole's 'body possession' hearing."
Given how coverage of Spears' troubles and the unexpected death of Anna Nicole Smith has boosted TV news ratings, Williams seemed to turn his back on sure viewership during a highly competitive "sweeps month" ratings period.
"I wrote it on a whim," the anchor said. "I realized I was watching three cable news networks doing some combination of stories on a bald singer leaving rehab for a second time and a dead former Playmate whose body is being argued over. I've got a world to cover . . . (and) if I thought for a moment that Nightly News was somehow depriving a yearning nation of these twin tragedies, I would rethink that decision."
For those who had been complaining about too much coverage of these celebrity-fueled tragedies, it was a rare moment of moderation from a respected TV journalist.
And it was also absolutely the wrong decision.
Because there is real news embedded in these ongoing soap operas. And a media-weary public needs quality journalists like Williams to pull substance out of these tawdry messes.
In Spears' case, we have one of the world's best-known pop singers melting down before the public's eye - a woman with two kids, millions of dollars and multitudes of fans who still can't conquer her own personal demons.
Smith, a 39-year-old professional train wreck of a celebrity, died unexpectedly - under circumstances similar to the death of her 20-year-old son five months earlier. She's left an estate potentially worth $400-million to a 5-month-old daughter who at least three men claim to have fathered, kicking off a legal battle over where Smith should be buried.
On what planet isn't this news?
Too much attention
"There's some news . . . certainly a series of legitimate legal tangles to be worked out that are keeping the (Smith) story alive," said Mark Jurkowitz, former media critic for the Boston Globe and now associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.
"(But) I have yet to see anybody justify why we're as interested in it as we are," Jurkowitz added. "I don't think there's any level of news that justifies the level of attention this has been getting from cable TV."
The PEJ's weekly tally noted that Smith's story was the No. 1 subject on cable news from Feb. 11 to 16, consuming 20 percent of the available "news hole."
Ratings for cable news doubled and tripled in the day after her death. Syndicated tabloid news shows saw double-digit ratings increases that week.
"There's a long strain of this perverse, contradictory attitude we have toward celebrities," Jurkowitz said. "On the one hand, we want to put them on a pedestal, but we have an almost equally perverse interest in their failings.
"There's a sense of moral superiority. Here's a person who has lived a wrong life and you can say, 'I'm a better person than that.' "
Jonathan Klein, CNN U.S. president, defended his channel's coverage - criticized even by CNN personality Jack Cafferty - saying the outlet focused intensely on Smith's death when it was breaking news, and eased up in the days afterward.
Viewers saw this approach Thursday afternoon, when the disposition of Smith's body was announced and CNN moved on to stories about politics and world events while MSNBC and Fox offered Smith-centered interviews and speculation.
"Tabloid is a matter of tone, not a matter of subject," he said. "My watchword here is to not waste the audience's time . . . When there's big breaking news, you jump on top of it . . . But we don't have to live for the immediate ratings bump."
There are two major reasons we're not getting the coverage we deserve.
- Traditional gatekeepers are failing. MSNBC last week offered a C-SPAN-style simulcast of the court hearing about Smith's remains, starring colorful Circuit Court Judge Larry Seidlin. Calling attorneys by nicknames, questioning witnesses himself and pontificating on the issues, Seidlin seemed more interested in producing great television than an orderly hearing. It was "the most bizarre legal proceeding I have ever seen," declared MSNBC legal analyst and general manager Dan Abrams.
- Coverage is desperate, unimaginative and lazy. The Daily Show had fun lampooning a recent CNN story in which a reporter looked in a refrigerator in the network's studio to see what its contents might say about its staff, after a celebrity news Web site reported Smith's refrigerator contained mostly methadone and diet drink supplements.
Fox News Thursday afternoon offered a panel of "experts" debating Spears' third attempt at rehab, while MSNBC's Rita Cosby stood in Fort Lauderdale anchoring continuous hearing coverage among a throng of 100 reporters. Such efforts don't lead to quality coverage; real reporting on Seidlin, Smith's companions or her family do.
Williams last week remained skeptical there was much valid news at hand.
"I'm quite sure if we switched to an all-Britney or all-Anna Nicole channel, we could attract a sizable audience," he said, chuckling. "But I don't think there's any rational person who tunes into Nightly News regularly expecting us to hand them that.
"There may be larger lessons about our culture of celebrity and substance abuse . . . If there are, we might think about covering that."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.