II. The Birth and Evolution of Celebrity
III. The Appeal of Celebrity
IV. The Rise of Celebrity Journalism
V. The Marketing Value of Celebrity
VI. Journalists Become Celebrities
VII. News as Entertainment
VIII. The Possible Disadvantages
IX. Source List
Celebrities seem to be everywhere. Their beautiful and often air-brushed faces adorn a multitude of entertainment magazines from which they stare at consumers from newsstands on the streets, in bookstores, and in grocery stores where they are strategically placed directly beside the check-out line to prompt an impulse buy. In fact, the top five titles in the United States every week are routinely in the celebrity category: People, Us Weekly, Star, The National Enquirer and In Touch rotate in and out of the top spot. The National Enquirer alone has a circulation of around three million copies each week, making it the best-selling tabloid in the United States (Watson).
Celebrities appear in movies, television shows, commercials and, in recent years, they have lent their voices to best-selling video games such as Grand Theft Auto:Vice City. It seems that no matter where one turns, the image or voice of a celebrity is not far away, but is it really that celebrities are everywhere or that celebrity journalism has grown into a media force to be reckoned with? It is evident that there exists a degree of saturation of celebrity journalism in the media, and one is left to wonder why the public’s interests focus so much on celebrities and entertainment and so little on public affairs, and what disadvantages this could mean for a democratic society that depends on a well-informed public. According to Warren Watson of the American Press Institute, “the proliferation of cable television broadcasts and other media, and infatuation with Hollywood scandal, and a pronounced focus on the personality of news makers are pushing serious news off news broadcasts and the front pages of newspapers large and small.”
This widespread obsession with celebrities may seem relatively new, but the celebrity journalism phenomenon has been with us for decades, says Marlene Rego of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. “It began with the public’s early mania over film stars like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” she says. “Paparazzi thrived on their on-again, off-again romance.”
Just as celebrity journalism is widespread, so are its critics. Author and former editor Pete Hamill compares celebrity news to a “virus”, and actor Edward Asner said that he was “horrified” by the celebrity news trend that he thought had led to a moral decay of our society (Watson).
While the public’s interest in celebrities may have flourished in the 1950s, forerunners of today’s celebrity-centric tabloids can be traced as far back as the 17th century with the birth of what were then called “ballads” and “news books.”
These eventually evolved into the penny press, which emerged in 1833 with the Sun in New York. For one cent, the public could buy a smaller, cheaper version of the newspaper offering human-interest stories written in plain but vivid language. It was the penny papers that first employed the reporting methods that journalists use today, such as interviewing, observation and description required for appealing, human-interest narratives (Rego). This could be viewed as the beginning of celebrity journalism. However, before discussing the birth of celebrity journalism as it is today, it is first necessary to understand the evolution of celebrity status itself. By learning about the birth of the idea of celebrity and how it has grown into the phenomenon that it has become, the apparent necessity of a branch of journalism dedicated to covering such interests becomes more clear. The most obvious reason for the growth of celebrity journalism is the overwhelming interest of the public in such reportage, but what is their interest in such news? One of the greatest mysteries of celebrity is its appeal to the public. By looking into the reasons why the public is so fascinated by and attracted to celebrities and entertainment, it becomes clearer why celebrity journalism is not only very popular but also very profitable, which in turn explains its saturation in the media.
The Birth and Evolution of Celebrity
Before there was celebrity as it is understood today, there was nobility and politics. Societal icons were not movie stars, television personalities or rock-n-roll idols, but instead were kings, queens and nobles. Eventually, royal popularity would give way to political icons, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. However, these figures were well known at a time when the idea of celebrity was still in its infancy, and by no means did they experience the onslaught of media attention that well-known figures receive today.
According to Charles L. Ponce de Leon’s book, Self Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940, the emergence of celebrity was, for the most part, a result of the development of new media (Ponce de Leon 40). New printing and engraving technologies allowed biographies and images of the famous and soon-to-be famous to reach a wider audience than in the past, an audience that would continue to grow with the expansion of literacy and the invention of technologies of mass reproduction. For well-known historical figures, such as Elizabeth I and Louis XIV, this meant new modes of communication that enabled those seeking fame to spread their names and images across vast expanses (14).
As the early media’s reach evolved, so did the very nature of the media itself. Written works about well-known figures during this time, who were mostly royals, nobles or other elite members of society, were often works of praise and flattery. Instead of biographies as they are known today, writers in the past would often write what were called hagiographies. A hagiography, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, is a book or writing that idealizes its subject. Literally, it was a term once reserved for written accounts of the lives of saints. This technique was used to write about prominent societal figures, especially nobility, as they were often viewed as being closer to the divine than their subjects and the lower classes. However, this began to change in the mid-19th century with the publication of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory led people to view humans as part of the natural world and made it more difficult to believe in a person’s nobility (34).
Around this time, biographers began to veer from their traditional hagiographic techniques and instead adopted a more “human” approach when writing about well-known public figures. This counterpoint to the hagiographic discourse of fame achieved a new level of visibility (16). Rather than appear as supernatural or akin to the divine, as was standard hagiographic practice before the Enlightenment, they appeared as exemplary human beings. They became models of possibility suggesting the heights that people could reach if they adopted an “enlightened” model of self-development (21). In modern times, this could be compared to the influence that celebrities have on fans who imitate them in hopes of reaping some of the same rewards, an element of celebrity appeal that will be discussed later.
Commoners soon discovered that the key to becoming well known was visibility, and visibility, they learned, could be acquired through means other than social standing and class, such as by striking the right poses at public events or making an impression on the streets. This peculiar new game was not really one of celebrity, but one of fame, which is considered the pre-modern antecedent to celebrity (18).
Historian Daniel J. Boorstin delivered a searing indictment of the culture of celebrity and the “big names” who dominated the media and the public’s consciousness when he said that “the celebrity is a person who is known [simply] for being well known” (12). Fame, on the other hand, was rare and highly valued. People didn’t become famous overnight…it took many years, sometimes generations, to achieve wide renown. Before the rise of celebrity as it exists today, fame was reserved for those who had performed heroic or miraculous deeds and was transmitted through folklore (14).
Now that they had become the subjects of widely-read printed exposes, traditional members of the elite redoubled their efforts to exploit the opportunities for publicity created by the public sphere. This was an attempt to regain legitimacy and secure a place in a society increasingly dominated by bourgeois values and was particularly true in nations like the United States where democratic currents were strong and upper classes were likely to be subjected to criticism. In the early 19th century, for example, many members of the educated gentry in the United States sought to advertise their commitment to democracy (17).
Beginning in the 1890s, techniques were developed to illuminate the subject’s “real self,” focusing on characteristics that made them interesting or unique and moving away from idealized portrayals in general (34). Some of these techniques went beyond simply looking at a public figure’s home life and went so far as to even learn to read body language and interpret the meaning of physical details. It was believed that a person’s self was revealed through the decor of their home, relations with family and intimate friends (30). The real self, in short, was a private self, and for the ever-growing curiosity of the public, the private self began to harbor more intrigue than the public image that was so meticulously cultivated.
The result of such techniques was an emergence of profiles and sketches that presented their subjects as complex, even flawed “human beings.” This proved to be a far more effective strategy for depicting public figures, because it recognized the degree to which the public had become skeptical of the ideas of nobility (34).
After the turn of the twentieth century, the tendency to portray prominent public figures as human beings rather than divine nobles or social elites was reinforced by a new interest in personality and the rewards of private life. The concept of “personality,” according to Ponce de Leon, was first developed in the 17th century and referred to the peculiar array of faculties, instincts and dispositions that made each man or woman unique. This developing theme of personality in 20th century portrayal of public figures diverted media coverage of celebrities even further from its antecedents of fame and heroism (41).
By the 1940s, hundreds of public figures were visible and well known to the public, and by the 1950s gossip columns and tabloids were thriving. When Elizabeth Taylor broke up singer Eddie Fisher’s marriage to actress Debbie Reynolds, the public could not get enough of the starlet’s home wrecking. The gossip not only increased Taylor’s celebrity, it made many stars realize what a little scandalous publicity can do to propel a career (Rego).
In 1959, biographies of an estimated 2,200 public figures were published in the International Celebrity Register. The publication seemed to generate an “aura of importance,” and yet some felt it made a mockery of the old distinctions of lineage and class that had marked its precursor, the notoriously elitist Social Register (11). The new register was another sign that American culture had reached a new level of banality, as Boorstin delivered an indictment that pointed to Blackwell’s and Amory’s reference book as a prime example of a “widespread tendency to embrace the vacuous and ephemeral.” Boorstin states that a celebrity’s fame bears no relation to achievements but is instead manufactured by press agents who are adept at exploiting the conventions of news gathering and that often it was not even deserved (12). But, if celebrities do not deserve their fame, then what is it about them that appeals to the public’s interests so much?
The Appeal of Celebrity
Carlin Flora, in a Psychology Today Magazine article titled “Seeing by Starlight: Celebrity Obsession,” says that it’s only natural that people get pulled into the gravitational field of celebrities. “Stars summon our most human yearnings; to love, admire, copy and, of course, to gossip and to jeer.” In fact, news consumers seem to be telling publishers and broadcast executives that there is no such thing as too much gossip…especially about celebrities (Rego). The ability to gossip about mutually “known” people, such as well-known celebrities, fulfills the public’s desire to admire the powerful and drive to fit into a community of people (Flora). In addition to this are four other possible explanations for celebrity attraction.
The first, and primary, appeal of celebrities and the entertainment world they work in is that they offer escape from what many feel is a mundane life. “Celebrities are fascinating, because they live in a parallel universe…one that looks and feels somewhat like ours yet is light years beyond our reach,” says Flora.
“We live lives more dedicated to safety or quiet desperation, and we transcend this by connecting with bigger lives…those of the stars,” says Michael Levine, a top Hollywood publicist. “We’re afraid to eat the fatty muffin, but Ozzy Osbourne isn’t” (Flora).
With the industrial era came more free time for many workers. The entertainment industry provided a realm where, more than ever, the public invested their emotional energy and expected relief from the demands of the modern world. Over the past hundred years, celebrity watching has evolved into a sort of national pastime, one that evokes no emotions beyond the point of diverting attention from what is unpleasant or boring.
“It does not have to induce fear and pity, purge our emotions, inspire our spirits to inflame our senses; it merely has to grab us long enough to take our minds away from the cares that would otherwise preoccupy them,” says Leo Bogart in his book, Commercial Culture: The Media System and the Public Interest.
Second, it has also been suggested that there may be more psychological reasons for the appeal of celebrity than simply the need to escape from life’s demands. For instance, catching the sight of a beautiful face has been known to release pleasing chemicals in the brain, which explains why seeing Scarlett Johanssen or George Clooney’s killer smile is sometimes difficult to ignore. It’s not surprising, however, that gorgeous people wind up famous. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that famous people often become gorgeous. Flora explains that the more a certain face is seen, the more a person’s brain likes it, whether or not it’s actually beautiful. This phenomenon is known as the “exposure effect,” says James Bailey, a psychologist at George Washington University. He adds that the pleasurable biological cascade that is set off when one sees a certain celebrity “begins to etch a neurochemical groove,” making their image easier for our brain to process (Flora). On the other hand, however, there is such a thing as celebrity overexposure. This celebrity overload as been referred to as the “J. Lo Effect,” and it can leave people thoroughly sick of even the most beautiful celebrity.
“They at first become more appealing, because they are familiar, but then the ubiquity becomes tedious,” Flora says. “That is why the stars who reign the longest are always changing their appearances.” By changing their appearances celebrities are able to reset the public’s responses back to when their faces were recognizable but still surprising. Madonna and Cher would be two examples of celebrities who have employed this strategy in an attempt to maintain their appeal.
Such appeal and interest in celebrities has led many fans to view them as role models to imitate. In fact, humans naturally copy techniques from high-status individuals in an attempt to earn the same rewards. Some think that by copying what a celebrity does, says or wears that they too could reap rewards of wealth and popularity. It is this impulse to copy famous people that is behind the popularity of celebrity magazines and reality shows such as American Idol.
“Readers might fantasize about duplicating the achievements of notable public figures,” says Ponce de Leon (40). Besides that, celebrity watching can by inspiring to others and help them muster the will to tackle their own problems. Primary examples of celebrities who have inspired others would be those who have battled cancer in the public eye, including Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and musician Melissa Etheridge.
“Celebrities motivate us to make it,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey (Flora).
According to Bogart, an individual’s personality and values are shaped by media exposure. Subsequently, the exercise of media preferences from an early age now represents one of the critical forms by which individuals manifest and shape their own identities (24). However, Flora notes how the imitation of celebrities has changed over the years. “In the past, ambitious young men who idolized a famous actor might take acting lessons or learn to dance. Now, they get plastic surgery and learn to tell their life stories for the camera.” This is another example of how celebrity and fame differs, the former being primarily dependent upon mere visibility while in the past fame has often been a result of great achievements.
Third, people look to celebrities to fulfill a need for relationships. Interestingly enough, people who watch more television are often more satisfied with their friendships just as if they had more friends and socialized more frequently. One study found that teens who keep up with celebrity gossip are often popular and have strong social networks, and they tend to show a healthy drive for independence from parents. To some people, celebrities become “acquaintances ripe for gossip and romance” (Flora). According to Flora’s article, the brain does not realize that it’s being fooled by television and movies into recognizing celebrities as part of their social network. The best targets for gossip are the faces that we all know. Evolutionary psychologists have agreed that humans are born to dish dirt, because it is the most efficient way to navigate society and determine who is trustworthy. The easy thing to do would be to blame the media for this cognitive whiplash, but the real problem is our own mind. It tricks us into believing that the stars are our social intimates, and that explains why the public never tires of celebrity gossip; it would be like getting bored with hearing about our own family and friends.
The fourth possible explanation for celebrity appeal is that in a secular society such as this, the need for ritualized idol worship can be displaced onto stars. John Lennon infuriated members of the public when he said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but he wasn’t the first to suggest that celebrity culture was taking the place of religion. Hollywood actually fills a similar cultural niche with its own myths and rituals, such as the red carpet and hand prints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. More recently, CNN’s Larry King mirrored Lennon’s comment a bit when he famously said, “If we had God booked and O.J. was available, we’d move God.”
Jonathan Burgess, associate professor with the department of classics at the University of Toronto, suggests that “perhaps since we have lost myths, traditional tales and shared cultural narratives going back generations, you could say that celebrities fill a gap.” In essence, the media’s constant coverage of celebrities has elevated them to a near-mythical status in the public eye. “To that extent,” he adds, “they are shared cultural material, like myth.”
The Rise of Celebrity Journalism
Celebrity journalism belongs to a genre of journalism referred to as “soft news,” a category that encompasses stories of human interest and entertainment. “Hard news,” on the other hand, includes public affairs news about the government and politics (Hamilton 4). From the beginning, periodical publishing included a mixture of information and entertainment, of hard news and soft news. It was said in 1790 that a proper magazine should be “very extensive” and should combine “utility with entertainment…instruction with pleasure” (Bogart 19-20).
Actors and entertainers first began attracting press coverage in the 1840s when promoters and theater managers discovered that public interest in an event or performance could be aroused by publicizing the men and women in the cast. This marketing strategy in turn gave rise to the “star system” in the theater (Ponce de Leon 207). Growing public interest in theater, vaudeville and the “star system” led to newspapers to assign reporters as “dramatic paragraphers” to cover the entertainment beat and produce regular columns and feature stories about show-business celebrities like Edwin Booth and Mary Anderson (208). Leading into the second half of the 19th century, celebrity journalism began to gain a steady following (44).
However, this new species of journalism did not become a staple of the metropolitan press until the 1880s and 1890s, as it was during this time that entertainment values became increasingly emphasized and journalists began employing new strategies that dramatically affected the ways in which public figures were portrayed (43). William Randolph Hearst was one of the first newspaper tycoons to set this new standard for sensationalism and entertainment values in journalism, forcing competitors to adopt similar practices (46). Thirteen years after Hearst acquired the New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883, this kind of “yellow journalism” became the weapon that each paper used in an attempt to conquer the other in an all-out circulation war. In fact, competition became so fierce that in 1924, Hearst launched the American Daily Mirror with this mandate: “Ninety percent entertainment, ten percent information…and the information without boring you” (Rego). By the early 20th century it was no secret that readers wanted to be “informed in a way that interests them” (Ponce de Leon 46). And what interested them were the celebrities in the emerging field of entertainment and popular culture.
Over time, celebrities began to recognize the importance of the press in publicizing their activities, because what distinguishes celebrities from the anonymous masses is a kind of visibility made possible by media and shaped by journalistic conventions (13). Individuals became “public figures” as a result of this visibility mediated through the press, and their celebrity was more a result of this ability to attract publicity than achievements or pedigree. Basically, a public figure’s celebrity hinged on this relationship with the press. As a result of this realization, public appearances became all the more important as the mass-circulation press expanded its coverage of urban life and made it possible for individuals to enhance their visibility by becoming the subjects of reportage (18).
Of course these new opportunities for self-promotion offered by the press did not come without new perils. Reporters and editors had a lot more independence than hired scribes or sympathetic biographers, and the conventions of journalism encouraged them to publish unflattering material inconsistent with the personas that public figures so carefully cultivated (32). This strategy was in answer to the public’s desire to glimpse a public figure’s “real self.” As Joseph Pulitzer once said:
Please impress on the men who write our interviews with prominent men the importance of giving a striking, vivid pen sketch of the subject: also a vivid picture of the domestic environment, his wife, his children, his pets, etc. Those are the things that will bring him more closely home to the average reader.
He believed that by employing this method of reporting that subjects would become more interesting and lifelike, as well as more credible (36).
By the early 20th century, people regarded as celebrities were subjected to a degree of exposure that far exceeded anything experienced by their predecessors during the heyday of the penny press, and celebrity journalism has infiltrated most media outlets within the past century. Watson says that it is not a question of whether stories about celebrities should be reported, but more a question about the balance of such stories.
Until recently, celebrity news makers were kept in their place: big-city tabloid newspapers, special scandal-hungry publications such as the National Enquirer, and later People magazine and television’s Entertainment Tonight. No one disputed that the news should be covered, but rarely did celebrity happenings warrant “top-line news play” (Watson).
Increasingly, however, it seems that celebrity happenings are warranting a spot in top-line news. For instance, the Cable News Network (CNN), a forerunning provider of hard news, welcomed actors Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as guests on a headline news show to promote their new comedy film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Not only are celebrities and entertainment finding their way into mediums previously dedicated to public affairs news, but the coverage they already receive continues to grow. According to a November 2005 article on Editors Weblog website, the Los Angeles Times extended its celebrity coverage with a new website focused on awards shows. The new feature, called The Envelope, demonstrates two trends in the newspaper industry. First, The Envelope is a free online venture that uses Internet innovations and interactive functions. Second, newspapers are straying from hard news and are beginning to focus on sensationalism and celebrities in order to sell papers. As a result, newspapers could be jeopardizing the role that they play in their communities as well as siphoning valuable resources from news gathering and investigation (www.editorsweblog.org). Basically, what it all comes down to is this…news is a business and celebrity journalism sells.
The Marketing Value of Celebrity
The main reason for the saturation of celebrity journalism in the news is that it brings in a lot of money for news organizations, primarily as a result of the print world catching on to the fact that celebrity news generates a lot of revenue while still being cheap to produce. After all, the news is principally produced by market forces and shaped by the particular economics of information goods (Hamilton 1). Programmers pay less for soft news, therefore they are more likely to program this type of information. Thus, as the cost of soft news programming decreases, the number of soft news programs increases and the number of shows with moderate or high levels of public affairs coverage decreases (15). As a result, celebrity stories now regularly appear front and center on television in print, increasing profit margins by producing inexpensive content that ignores hard news (Watson). It is for this reason that journalists who appear in print and on television are much more likely to focus on entertainment values.
In addition to being cheaper to produce, entertainment and celebrity news also brings in more advertisers who are willing to pay more for soft news spots in an attempt to reach more potential consumers. Media content, then, depends in part on who cares about a particular piece of information, what they are willing to pay for that information or others (mostly advertisers) are willing to pay for their attention. This is also dependent on what type of potential consumers can be reached by media outlets and advertisers (Hamilton 121). The choice of some outlets to specialize in soft news, drama and entertainment is evident in the high percentage of audience members for the programs following entertainment news (79). This growth in the market for entertainment led entrepreneurial spirits to rush to fill this vacuum of profitable opportunity.
Such entrepreneurs gained the support of journalists, rewarding newspaper editors and reporters with everything from lucrative advertising contracts to free tickets and opportunities to hobnob with stars. What resulted was a surge in advertisements promoting popular culture events, and popular personalities became a products to be shared by all forms of media. No longer restricted to a single medium, the media began to feed upon each other’s subjects and personalities, a phenomenon known as “synergy.” Synergy is the belief that activities in one medium can be profitably exploited in others, and it was this belief that led to advertisements featuring the testimonials of celebrities in an attempt to sell more products (Bogart 33).
This attempt to sell products using celebrity appeal begins at a young age for modern consumers; for instance, the marketing of toys based on cartoons and television shows and vice versa. Batman products were places on sale before the film itself even opened, and Pepsi-Cola built a $25 million advertising campaign around the film E.T. (Bogart 39). The resulting increase in advertising rates makes soft news programming more profitable, which draws programmers to this genre until profits are equalized across the three types of programming: low, medium, and high levels of public affairs news (Hamilton 15).
Advertisers are willing to pay more to reach viewers between the ages of 18 and 34 for a variety of reasons, including the theory that their purchasing decisions may be more easily influenced. Since females ages 18-34 are most likely to make the purchasing decisions in their households, they are a highly valued demographic group by advertisers (71). This means that programmers will try to attract younger viewers to the network evening news, however the audience for network evening news programs consists largely of viewers aged 50+. According to a study by Nielsen in November 1999 in which a total of 96 informational programs on the broadcast television networks were tracked, 60 Minutes attracted the largest average audience among men and women over the age of 50. However, for younger viewing categories this show did not even make the top ten. Instead, younger audiences ages 18-34 were drawn toward informational shows that they felt were more entertaining (121).
“The public, particularly the much-sought-after younger consumer, has an insatiable appetite for celebrity coverage,” says John Carroll, retiring editor of the Los Angeles Times. “And newspaper-owning corporations are more interested these days in responding to raw market demands, no matter how demeaning” (Watson).
In addition, Mark Fowler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the 1980s, emphasized that media content flows from the types of preferences people express in the marketplace. “The public’s interest, then, defines the public interest” (Hamilton 1).
Journalists Become Celebrities
It is no secret that the media often share talent. People in show business who have achieved success in one medium or art form are often able to transfer their reputations to another. The stars are stars of stage, screen and television. The same actors perform in films and television programs; they can also be heard on compact discs, [iPods] and the radio; their exploits are heralded in books, magazines and newspapers (Bogart 36). In much the same way, many journalists have transferred their reputations from one medium to another with a great deal of success. Before television, journalists were experienced through non-visual mediums; newspapers, magazines and radio. Television, however, made entertainment stars out of working journalists, says Bogart (37). Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan were among the first newspaper columnists to become stars of broadcasting. This phenomenon of journalists becoming celebrities is a trend that continues to present day, as successors of Winchell and Sullivan appear on talk shows, publish books and magazine articles, which then get turned into films for television or feature release (37).
There are three areas of evidence, according to Hamilton, on how journalists have come to be a part of the product in news. First, the salary rewards in network evening news programs; second, the type of language used by pundits who cover politics across different media; and third, the speaking fees generated by journalists (Hamilton 215). Widespread exposure of journalists made famous by the reach of their programs or publications transforms some reporters into celebrities. The star quality that comes to be associated with well-known television reporters and some print journalists translates into demand for speeches (216). Media personalities, as well as politicians and authors, can often command substantial speaking fees to appear at meetings and conventions. Their ability to command such large sums comes from the fact that many listeners derive added enjoyment from hearing famous individuals deliver their familiar views in person; they are attracted to the celebrity status of the individual.
One company that provides such celebrity speakers is called Leading Authorities, which, according to its website, is based in Washington, D.C. In April 2000, Leading Authorities had a list of 127 speakers-for-hire who were willing to discuss politics and the media. The price for a speech ranged from a low of $5,000 for many print journalists to a high of $75,000 for controversial radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger. The average speaking fee for 52 media personalities in a sample was $14,800, while the average for former politicians was $10,200 (223). The reason why speaking fees for reporters are often higher than for former politicians that they once covered is that journalists are often able to make their speeches while they are still at the height of their celebrity, while most politicians are out of office and out of the spotlight before they join the speaker’s circuit.
Though the job of network anchors is to deliver the news, they are rewarded more in the marketplace for their ability to deliver viewers to advertisers (215). Anchors have become increasingly valuable in the struggle to attract audiences for advertisers as news outlets have learned that consumers develop some expectation about the content of a given news program based on the personality and appearance of its anchor.
“Though you may not yet know the day’s events, the personalities of Peter Jennings, Larry King, Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, Mike Wallace or Chris Matthews create for some consumers an image of the type of news they will experience,” Hamilton says. Journalists, then, become the familiar faces or trusted sources that draw consumers to a program or publication, and if the consumers enjoy watching a particular journalist, they may be more likely to watch a given channel because of this familiarity. In this way, network anchors have become a way for channels to create a brand image in the minds of the viewers. As a result, even as the average audience for network evening news programs has declined, the salaries for network anchors have increased (221).
This emphasis on transforming broadcast journalists into performers has been well documented and even includes attempts to counsel reporters on clothes, hairstyle and demeanor. The rewards that journalists may receive for developing an entertaining style are potentially high (224). David Westin, as president of ABC News, encouraged journalists in his network to get mentioned is the gossip columns more often. Similarly, print outlets such as Newsweek and Time actually encourage their reporters to appear on television to generate an audience for their printed work.
Some critics decry journalists as celebrities. In his book, Self-Exposure, Bogart notes that the integrity of journalism is threatened when it is incorporated into media conglomerates whose main business is entertainment. In addition, Hamilton states that the downside of journalists being marketed as personalities is evident but hard to measure. “In terms of opportunity costs, hours spent speaking before conventions and traveling meetings are hours not spent covering the news,” he says. And most would agree that covering the news should be a journalist’s top priority…not being a celebrity.
News as Entertainment
The need for networks to establish consistent expectations about content has pushed news outlets to cover stories in predictable ways and to use these celebrity personalities to deliver the news. In this way, the news has been transformed into a form of entertainment, and in some cases has lent to our “national theater of the absurd,” a term used by Renee Graham to describe American media in her article for The Boston Globe, “Revisiting the O.J. Circus, the media is guilty again.”
Celebrities have created news stories, such as the trials of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson. Conversely, news stories have created celebrities, such as Scott Peterson who was on trial and found guilty for the murder of his wife and unborn child. Despite not being particularly well liked, Peterson had become a celebrity by definition (Graham).
While the media instruct, they also divert. The media may convey the urgent messages of journalistic reportage, but at the same time they also provide the easy alternatives that allow those messages to be shut of of mind. For this reason, information and entertainment cannot be unscrambled (Bogart 17). This dual function of providing both amusement and knowledge can be traced back to the earliest origins of theater. In the latter half of the 6th century B.C., drama was fundamentally didactic in aim, argues classical scholar Eric Havelock. It gave the Athenians a sense of identity as citizens.
“It’s many composers applied their skills to combining oral education with oral entertainment,” Bogart says.
So, while combining news with entertainment is not a modern creation, it has led to a modern dilemma of how to balance the public interest with the public’s interest. Facts are generally ignored if there is no motivation to absorb them, and as a result knowledge is often embedded within layers of amusement. A central concern of journalism since the first days of the periodical press has been trying to establish this balance between what must be said and what will be read or viewed (Bogart 19). Over the past couple of decades, the public’s interest in hard news has declined dramatically. The share of television viewers who watch the evening news has decreased from 72 percent in 1980 to 44 percent in 2000. For one network evening news program, the average number of viewing households dropped 1,644,000 between 1975 and 1999 (Hamilton 216).
Many media scholars believe that the balance between news and entertainment in the media shifted dramatically and in short order during the O.J. Simpson scandal in 1994-95 (Graham). Many critics point to the Simpson trial as the turning point at which news became entertainment and vice versa. Graham says that it was saturation coverage of the case that marked the beginning of the broadcast media’s interminable slide.
“It was the moment when the media tossed aside news judgment and made a blatant appeal to the lowest-common denominator for ratings,” she says. “It was the perfect storm of celebrity and violence, our true national pastimes, that fueled countless headlines and hours of broadcast time.”
The O.J. Simpson case, a tedious distraction that became foolishly known as “The Trial of the Century,” became inescapable and the networks covered it as though national security depended on it. Consequently, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between hard news and fluff as the line between the two quickly disappeared. The trial received as much attention on CNN and NBC as it did on celebrity-centered shows such as the 25-year-old program Entertainment Tonight and the E! cable channel. In defense of such “news” programs, Cheryl Hickey from Entertainment Tonight has this to say: “I think what we do is journalism. We tell stories just like journalists do, but in a different way” (Rego). She then mentioned the escapism that is generally tied to entertainment journalism. “We live in a stressful climate and people just want to sit back and relax.”
As mentioned earlier, broadcast networks target their material toward an audience of viewers who are between the ages of 18 and 34, because it is this group that commands high advertising rates. People in this age range are much less likely to express an interest in traditional hard news stories, so news outlets are pushed to cater to the preferences of these younger viewers in order to maintain advertising dollars. One example of news meeting entertainment is the highly watched and very popular “news” show hosted by comedian Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, which airs on Comedy Central. Although the main mission of this show is to entertain by means of comedy, it does perform the informative function of journalism, and newspapers are no exception to blending news with entertainment. Sue Cross, Los Angeles bureau chief for the Associated Press, told an industry conference last year that “celebrity journalism has changed mainstream journalism. It has made a difference in what we end up pursuing as a wire service.” She said that the AP bureau in Los Angeles spends a good portion of its time chasing rumors about celebrities that appear online and in other media. In fact, “staffers are kept from other stories,” she said.
The Possible Disadvantages
The media has the potential to provide the means for people to manage their lives more responsibly. After all, the mass media is one of the strongest influences through which we acquire our specific opinions on the many matters for which our family, school, church and job provide no automatic positions. The media play an often essential, but often invisible, part in organizing our thoughts, both on distant and abstract matters and on those that are close to home (Bogart 19). Perhaps because of this role that the media play, ethics specialist Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies says celebrity journalism has reached a “crisis point” in U.S. daily journalism (Watson).
The fact that celebrity journalism is the fastest growing magazine category in North America is worrisome, says Rego, because the media’s growing reliance on, and the public’s growing preference for, celebrity rather than hard news is precisely the kind of situation that Knowlton Nash alerted readers to in his book Trivia Pursuit: How Showbiz Values are Corrupting the News. “It’s a business in trouble because of its current obsession with immediacy, with the pursuit of trivia, with entertainment and gossip.” Celebrities have become the idolized heroes of a generation of readers and viewers infatuated with the rich and famous and their scandals. This preoccupation with celebrities and entertainment over public affairs news has led to two main concerns about the disadvantages of such journalism (Rego).
The first concern is the devaluing of “greatness”, which refers back to the beginning of celebrity journalism when well-known public figures were eventually depicted as normal human beings that commoners could relate to. They were no longer hailed as great or divine nobility in hagiographic written accounts, and soon public figures gained celebrity simply based on their visibility. They did not have to occupy a position of leadership or perform an extraordinary feat; all it took was for them to seem newsworthy. As the press expanded its coverage to include new areas of social life, the criteria that journalists employed to determine newsworthiness expanded as well (Ponce de Leon 3). Soon, everyday American heroes were dwarfed by celebrities. According to Ponce de Leon, when an authentic hero, such as Charles Lindbergh, appeared on the scene and was drawn into the maw of the celebrity-making machinery, he was reduced to the trivialized stature of less deserving figures.
“The [prominence] of the celebrity was a condition fostered by the mass media; which cheapened the substantive achievements of people deserving fame by placing them alongside people whose fame was undeserved, a process made possible by the media’s propensity for focusing the spotlight not on achievements but on ‘personalities’,” says Ponce de Leon (13).
The other main concern as a result of the saturation of such journalism is that people will remain ignorant about the details of public policy (Hamilton 2). As their interest in such news continues to decrease, news about the government will be underprovided and under consumed, Hamilton says. As this type of news lessens, participation in voting drops off, and it turn interest in the news continues to decline (111).
As a result, hard news loses out because of the “dumbing down” of reader and viewer interests. Broadcast journalists are more frequently celebrities than reporters and are more likely to offer product spin-offs, such as books or speeches, than true political insights. These phenomena are better explained as arising from economic choices rather than human failings (2).
“I thought the volume and redundancy of the recent Michael Jackson coverage was numbing,” said Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. “It’s part of a larger trend of newspapers responding to economic pressure by dumbing down, downsizing and pandering to what they perceive as readers’ taste for amusement rather than understanding.”
However, it seems that even if readers and viewers are not following the news of politics very closely, the combined amount of coverage that they consume across different outlets, their conversations with friends and the paid political advertising they observe may provide them with enough information to participate well in politics. When asked to rate seven political figures on a six-point scale (where one was very conservative and six very liberal) respondents were remarkably consistent in their placement of the politicians. In fact, the candidate ratings for Clinton, Gore, Bradley, Jackson, Bush, McCain and Buchanan on this six-point scale reported by regular voters were nearly the same as those reported by marginal voters (Hamilton 75). So, although many survey respondents do not express a strong interest in politics, they still may learn enough about politics to make “informed” political decisions. A survey was also done to find out whether less-informed voters later regretted their voting decisions. The data indicated that they were not more likely to be disappointed with their choices. This suggests that even in a world where readers and viewers consume programs with great differences in hard news content, those who make some attempt to learn about politics or take some action to participate may possess enough information to place candidates on a left-right political scale. However, this minimal knowledge of politics could lead to the devaluing of issues as the public relies more on political-platform stereotypes and polls and less on real knowledge of the candidates and their agendas.
“If too many voters lack information on too many topics,” Hamilton says, “politicians can enjoy too much freedom to pursue political policies that constituents would reject if they were the actual decision makers” (5).
Despite these finding, many believe that if broadcasters were led to fully understand the benefits to society of hard news programming, such as more informed voting decisions, more programs with high public affairs content would be offered (16). Yet, it is difficult to know the exact evils that may result from a lack of news coverage or consumption. Hamilton suggests that a degree of ignorance about the details of policies and issues represents a net savings to society, explaining that democracy involves delegating many decisions to elected officials and frees voters from learning the details of many issues. This would save time for members of the public, and having more time has always been valued whether in terms of work or recreation. Unfortunately, the social sciences currently don’t provide good answers on how much news is enough to make a democracy’s decision-making work well (5).
“The media give the public what the public wants, but maybe it’s time to give the public what it needs instead,” argues Salma Ghanem, professor of communications at the University of Texas-Pan American in a comment in the Dallas News. “The media don’t fulfill the social-responsibility role…which should serve as a catalyst for an informed citizenry. The struggle for ratings, which translate into advertising dollars, is behind the media’s insatiable appetite for sensational stories. Perhaps we should start exploring new ways to fund the media so they won’t be susceptible to market forces.”
Alternative methods for media funding could include a more public model such as the United Kingdom’s BBC, which is paid for directly through each household having a subscription to a television license that costs $242 per year. This allows it to run a wide range of popular services for everyone, free of advertising and independent of advertisers, shareholders or political interests (www.bbc.com). However, new technology has led to pending increases in the cost of a license. While the license fee does raise $5.5 billion each year, the BBC has asked the government to increase the license fee by 2.3 percent to cover the expenses of digital cable and the Internet (Pfanner).
Another alternative would be to implement directly government-funded media; however, this model is surely not desired in a democratic society such as the United States. More fitting to U.S. ideals would be the alternative that calls for efforts to make the actions of the government more transparent by reducing the costs of reporters covering politics. Laws that strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and favor the distribution of government data on the Internet, for example, can stimulate hard news production by reducing the sources that journalists need to devote to gathering information (Hamilton 6).
The more fundamental truth seems to be that our problems lie, not in our media stars, but in ourselves. Those making efforts to improve media markets need to recognize that news emerges not from individuals trying to improve the workings of democracy but from readers and viewers looking for a diversion and from reporters forging careers and owners searching for profits (6).
“For today’s audiences, rich and famous means real news,” Rego says. “Thanks a lot, ‘Brangelina’.”
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Bogart, Leo. Commercial Culture: The Media System and the Public Interest. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1995.
Hamilton, James T. All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 2004.
Ponce de Leon, Charles L. Self Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London. 2002.
“About the BBC.” BBC Website. http://www.bbc.co.uk/info
Graham, Renee. “Revisiting the O.J. Circus, the media is guilty again.” The Boston Globe. June 2004. Retrieved: September 2006. (http://www.editorsweblog.org/print_newspapers/2005/06/08/revisiting_the_oj_circus_the_media_is_guilty_again/)
Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau. http://www.leadingauthorities.com. 2006.
“Los Angeles Times launches entertainment awards show website.” Editors Weblog. November 2005. Retrieved: September 2006. (http://www.editorsweblog.org/print_newspapers/2005/11/los_angeles_times_launches_entertainment.php#more)
Pfanner, Eric. “BBC Presses for Financing and its Detractors Cry Foul.” The New York Times. July 2006. Retrieved: December 1, 2006. (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/17/business/media/17bbc.html?ei=5088&en=e746d5baefcb5754&ex=131788800&adxnnl=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rrs&adxnnlx=1165086171-z8+kfSzxNplxN26OWILtEA)
Rego, Marlene. “Celebrity Shocker!” Ryerson Review of Journalism. June 2006. Retrieved: September 18, 2006. (http://www.rrj.ca/issue/2006/summer/632/)
Watson, Warren. “As news looks to the stars, is it reaching new lows?” American Press Institute. July 2005. Retrieved: September 18, 2006. (http://www.americanpressinstitute.org/pages/resources/2005/07/as_news_looks_to_the_stars_is/#comments)