I read Jon Fine's column about the insane growth of TMZ and couldn't help but ponder what this expanding obsession with celebrity screw ups means to youth culture. According to the article, "In September, TMZ.com notched 10.5 million unique U.S. visitors, dwarfing its entertainment-news rivals. In fact, the site, which is co-owned by Time Warner (TWX )units AOL and Telepictures, ranked No. 5 among all news sites, besting all nonportals save for CNN and MSNBC."
Viewing this through a media literacy lens, you could argue that in some ways it umasks celebrities, often used to sell any number of products or youth oriented content, knocking them off their pedestals. You could also say it offers a morality tale of how fame, fortune and being surrounded by enablers can ruin young stars. Or that it shows how anything you say or do can be caught on tape (especially when you're hounded by paparazzi) and spread virally online.
But the tone of a lot of the coverage is definitely smug -- TMZ executes it "take downs" a lot less nastily than sites like Perez Hilton or other more vicious Hollywood gossip blogs, but it still perpetuates the "culture of mean" where we all get to laugh at people's mistakes and make fun of them with abandon. I was reading one of the countless Britney entries on PopSugar and so many of the comments were just stinging, calling her white trash, a whore, etc. etc. In a media culture that is so worried about teens cyber-bullying each other, it's ironic that the media can perpetuate meanness on a more macro level. Monkey see. Monkey do.
The biggest downside to the celebritification of news is that in many ways it's becoming another opiate of the people. By being able to focus on Britney's latest missed drug test, we don't have to think about young soldiers being blown up daily in Iraq and certainly don't have to do anything about it. It allows all of us to disengage from the real headlines that can be overwhelming and depressing as well as the daunting reality of what it would take to bring about real change. When that feeling arises, it's just so easy to check in on the latest fallen star and to forget about a world that feels out of control.