celebrity magazines, celebrity tabloids
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Is America Too Obsessed With Celebrities?

July 01, 2009 07:30 AM
by Liz Colville
The current onslaught of celebrity news coverage appears to follow Americans’ preferences. But some polls and experts suggest otherwise.

A Peerless Celebrity Dies in an Era of Celebrity Obsession

Michael Jackson had an undeniable impact on millions of people’s lives. But so did Elvis Presley. When Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, ABC and NBC’s nightly news programs led with the story, but CBS did not.

On June 25, Jackson’s death dominated coverage by nearly every U.S. news organization, so much so that newspaper Web sites failed to load, as did Twitter and Google.

It is “hard to fathom” that CBS reported Elvis’ death after other events of the day in 1977, the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal writes, when you consider that the day after Jackson died, “news organizations continued to scramble to keep pace with new developments” in his death. Rosenthal does note that CBS news anchor Walker Cronkite was on vacation when Elvis died; some say that had Cronkite been around, he would have led with the story.

A Google News search of “Michael Jackson” turns up tens of thousands of news stories, including gossipy speculation, his obituary and hard news. The Project for Excellence in Journalism studied coverage of Jackson’s death and found that a full “60% of the coverage” was “retrospectives of his life and career. Another 31% focused on the potential causes of death including rumors of drug abuse. Just 3% was about the legal issues involving his sizable estate.”

The coverage is largely due to Jackson’s iconic status as an entertainer: The Guinness World Records appropriately called him the “Most Famous Living Man on Earth.” But the magnitude and breadth of coverage is also part of a trend: America’s obsession with celebrity.

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Opinion & Analysis: Celebrities sell, but should they be sold?

“[C]elebrity coverage sells—the whole range of it,” said Jay Harris, a senior editor of a metropolitan tabloid, at a 2004 conference at the University of Southern California called “Reporting on Celebrities: The Ethics of News Coverage.” “As a general rule,” Harris said via The Poynter Institute Web site, “journalists will attract more, not fewer readers, viewers, or listeners if they include some element of celebrity coverage in the buffet they offer to the public.”

Harris gets at the “why” of celebrity coverage by describing it as one of our “baser desires.” We live vicariously through celebrities, he suggests; we are keen to know “what they're doing and with whom; their rise, their fall, and even their time in the gutter.” The latter two have the effect of reassuring us that we’re better off not being celebrities.

Although the above suggests that Americans are apparently “driving” news coverage of celebrities, the “vast majority” of us said coverage of celebrity scandals has gone overboard, according to a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The poll found that “most blame the media for the attention paid to the stars’ trials and tribulations,” the Associated Press reported.

Many of those polled also said there was too little coverage of “good things that are happening in the country,” according to Pew.

Still, the public’s desire for celebrity is strongly felt by some news sources, suggested Robert Scheer, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School, at the same conference. “[S]ome magazines and television programs are so dependent upon celebrities that they may hype or soften stories to promote or protect celebrities,” Scheer is quoted as saying on The Poynter Institute Web site. “There is an incredible amount of corruption in this business,” he added.

It appears to be a chicken-egg phenomenon, as Jeff Jarvis suggested to AP (though he called the celebrity news craving a “rotten egg”). “[T]he media at times can be captivated by the hold of celebrity on some people’s lives and at the same time will eagerly exploit it,” the Project for Excellence in Journalism explained in a report of media coverage during the week of Jackson’s death.

Jarvis predicted that “attention to celebrity scandals might fade, but will not go away,” AP reported.

Meanwhile, there may never be a celebrity who can match Michael Jackson, but there will be plenty of hopefuls. "The pop-idol field—like every field that can lead to super-fame—is more crowded than it has ever been," writes David Segal in The New York Times. But "[f]ame on the level that Mr. Jackson achieved is all but impossible for pop culture heroes today, and quite likely it will never be possible again."

Related Topic: Is fame worth it?

The recent proliferation of reality TV shows such as “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and “Britain’s Got Talent”—shows in which regular people voluntarily put themselves in the spotlight and in effect turn into celebrities—has some asking whether the trend has gone too far. Regular people now face the constant scrutiny that traditional celebrities like movie stars and musicians face.

Susan Boyle, the singing sensation of “Britain’s Got Talent,” checked into a clinic citing exhaustion following the show’s wrap. “BGT” judge Piers Morgan told a U.K. morning news program, “It has been crazy, she has gone from anonymity to being the most downloaded woman in history.” News sources made headlines out of just about everything Boyle did, including pluck her eyebrows or change her hairstyle.

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