Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Thin Line of Celebrity

I tend to write a lot of my posts late at night, when I'm somewhat tired, pushing myself to post something. It's not the best system, but I find it hard to do it any other way. This results in rushed pieces, distractions, and laziness, all terrible habits. It also is why I don't post more often. Here's some stuff I wrote last night--and I'm amazed at the tone of it. Man, was I fired up.


Those who read People and US Weekly and watch Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood are generally thought of as people who don’t care about politics. They are middle America; their news filters through them. They are the girls on the beach in bikinis, lounging around getting a tan and getting trash, but trash usually what they read. At least, this is how I categorize these people.

But a funny thing has happened the past few months. All of a sudden, the presidential candidates are considered actual celebrities, worthy of a People cover or an exclusive interview on a syndicated entertainment show. Granted, these are soft interviews, meant to show how normal, yet beautiful and caring, the candidates and their families are. While this isn’t totally new—newsworthy, non-celebrity events have made the cover of People before, from September 11 to previous presidential issues—it has certainly racheted up.

It’s funny that McCain was the one to deride his opponent as being the “celebrity”, but it’s his campaign that has been thrust into the tabloid trail, and not because everyone's all so enamored of his wife. Sarah Palin’s background, fueled by the explosive news that her 17 year-old daughter is pregnant (with rumors circulating that Palin’s 5 month-old disabled boy is actually hers), has caused a feeding frenzy, with ET actually camped out the St. Paul convention headquarters, eagerly awaiting the latest news.

A casual viewer, changing channels, would wonder why on Earth Entertainment Tonight actually cares about the convention. Isn’t that the province of actual journalists, not entertainment ones? And why would a regular viewer of these types of shows actually care? Sure, it’s fun to speculate about a pregnancy—way more than trying to decipher who said what about earmarks—but nobody knew who Bristol Palin was Saturday, and she has nothing to do with anything, except being related to the new nominee. Her boyfriend’s MySpace is just another unfortunate example of a private citizen’s “public” property suddenly thrust into the spotlight because of tangential relations. Now, he’s a dumb teenager who allegedly hadn’t updated the site in over a year (shame on him—delete or update!), but he presents himself as a guy that’s not going to win too many friends, bringing down Alaskan boys to boot. Guys, learn to be smart. There’s always a chance your blog/MySpace/Facebook will be publicized if you somehow find yourself in the news, and knowingly dating the daughter of the governor who then finds herself picked as the Vice Presidential nominee should be a sign that you should clean up your act, but hey, maybe I'm just too cautious. (I’m guessing the Palins, especially Bristol, don’t have accounts, because I haven’t heard of them yet, though I also haven’t looked.)

Very few mainstream media outlets, to my knowledge, have picked up this story, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal and noted in the bottom of this Time article, itself a fluff piece. But it’s perceptions that often matter more than the issues (Sarah Palin being this year’s Case Study); after all, it’s widely believed that Gore’s characterization on Saturday Night Live undermined his candidacy.

The blurring of pop and politics, of the trivial and the important, is only going to continue, as media outlets need all the angles they can get to feed a ravishing public. It’s a requisite now that everyone needs to reveal as much as possible to the public; we demand it. Soft news sells the soft vote—you never know if a People spread is going to add another check mark next to a name on the ballot.

The WSJ points it out the best:

The most popular celebrity newsmagazines on TV reach between two million and six million viewers a night. People and US Weekly reach 29.5 million and 8.2 million women, respectively, every week, according to Mediamark Research & Intelligence Inc. Those figures include "pass-along" readers who don't buy the magazines but take a look at someone else's copy.

These magazines strive to bring celebrities down to earth so readers can relate to them, and this is fast becoming a political preoccupation. President Bush successfully cast Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election as an elitist. "So much came down to, 'Who would you rather have a beer with?'" says US Weekly editor Janice Min.


Ms. Min says most of the candidates have thrown open the doors to her reporters. "In working with Barack and Hillary [Clinton], their press people put no restrictions on us," Ms. Min said. Their handlers were more accommodating than "even publicists for D-list actors," she added.

US Weekly's June 30 issue, which featured Barack and Michelle Obama on the cover with the heading "Michelle Obama: Why Barack Loves Her," sold over 886,000 copies on the newsstand, an increase of 18% over the previous three issues, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Cover stories on noncelebrities also have the effect of gathering attention from people who don’t traditionally read the magazines.

Note: As further proof of the mixing of news today, look at who runs the Pop and Politics blog: students at the well-known Annenberg Center at USC, one of the top communications programs in the country.


John said...

After all the hype you gave this outtake piece, I expected it to be a bit more wildly vicious and/or haphazard. You seem to make some solid points about Washington being in a different sort of public eye these days. Perhaps now the "Hollywood for the ugly" (as Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead once put it) will start to blend with its more photogenic counterpart. After all, we already have the two co-stars of both Predator 1 and The Running Man in office.

petpluto said...

It deeply saddens me that people vote for the person they like best in the People article. That's really kind of depressing. And I absolutely hate "who would you rather have a beer with?" You know what? I don't want to have a nice sit-down with my president! I want him to be smarter than me, more obsessive than me, and better than me. I want my president to be of the elite. I have drinking buddies!!! I don't need another one!

Jess said...

I completely agree with Petra. Whenever I hear things like along the lines of "has good family values and is just like your family," a little part of me dies inside. I love my family, but none of us should ever be put in a position of political power. We'd make Bush's mess look minuscule.

I want and expect a certain level of elitism in my president. No presidential candidate truly understands the struggles of the common American, even if he was once in that position. The fact is that money changes people and it is impossible to become a presidential nominee unless you have a ton of money. The Obamas' advertising their new dog is just sad. It doesn't make me want to vote for him more; it makes me want to weep for the American public and that we're a nation who will vote for whoever seems more like us, as opposed to who has the policy suggestions that will improve our lives.