Celebrity Journalism is like crack. Americans are addicted to it. We need to hear the Mel Gibson tapes and see Lindsay Lohan report to jail. So why do newspapers, magazines, and television keep feeding our habit?
As Charles Taylor stated in a 1998 article on Salon.com, "Having a celebrity on the cover sells magazines. That keeps advertisers and the publisher happy, and that, in the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of magazines, keeps the editor employed."
If the mainstream media doesn't cover celebrities, people will get the news anyway through outlets like Radar.com, TMZ, the Drudge Report, Perez Hilton, and National Enquirer. Of course, it was Matt Drudge's breaking of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that put him on the map.
Celebrity journalism outlets are not only popular, but they are gaining grudging respect. The National Enquirer was recently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the John Edwards' affair.
According to Victor Merina on Poynter.org, during a 2004 conference panel at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, in collaboration with the Poynter Institute, Dan Rosenheim, news director of KPIX-TV in San Francisco, said, "One ignores viewers or reader interests at your own peril. We risk trivializing ourselves and marginalizing ourselves."
Last week, hundreds of photographers and journalists camped out at the Beverly Hills courthouse in the latest celebrity journalism media circus to cover Lindsay Lohan's perp walk. In the lead up to the spectacle, MSNBC cut away from its coverage every 15 minutes or so to show the scene outside the courtroom. They even had the O.J.-like helicopter shots of the two
SUVs that brought team Lohan to court. MSNBC wasn't alone; Fox News also ran the live helicopter shots. All of this led up to her being whisked out of her car and briskly walking past the media who were shouting questions. It all lasted around 10 seconds. Her booking into jail just made you want to tweet "Eeeks."
There were many other national and world news stories that merited coverage last Tuesday, the day of the Lohan spectacle. Most significantly, British Prime Minister David Cameron made his first White House visit to meet with President Obama to discuss BP's alleged involvement in freeing the Pan Am terrorist, Afghanistan, and the global economy. There was Hillary Clinton's meeting with Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. The Senate voted on extending unemployment benefits. West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin announced that he would run in the 2010 special election to fill Robert Byrd's Senate seat. Yet, despite all of that, Lindsay stole the show.
Journalists consider many things when deciding whether to cover a story. Journalism textbooks such as Writing and Reporting News, A Coaching Method by Carole Rich with Christopher Harper indicate that factors of what constitute news include timeliness, proximity, unusual stories, celebrities, human interest, conflict, impact, helpfulness, entertainment, community issues, and trends. Regarding celebrities and entertainment, if a Lindsay Smith in say, Peoria violates her DWI probation, it won't get extensive news coverage; maybe a short blurb in the local newspaper. But when Lindsay Lohan violates her probation, it becomes a national obsession.
Another factor for what constitutes news is economics. If American newspapers regularly focused on issues like copper mining in Argentina, people would cancel their subscriptions. When Natalee Holloway was reported missing, news hosts like Greta Van Susteren went to Aruba to air her show, which turned out to be her highest rated shows for that year. She wasn't alone in the obsessive coverage, as Nancy Grace and Larry King constantly focused on that case as well. Celebrity magazines are doing well in a poor economy. According to MSNBC.com, People Magazine is second in consumer magazine circulation behind only Cosmopolitan, with a circulation of over 1.3 million readers.
In an ideal world, media outlets would ignore the trivial banalities of celebrity meltdowns and focus primarily on the real world issues that concern us all. However, the media needs to give the people what they want in order to survive. Most reporters and editors don't want to keep acting as celebrity journalism crack dealers, but it's a necessary part of the business.