Saturday, June 28, 2008

Tabloid Culture, Tabloid Lives

Call this "Lessons I've Learned From Watching CDI, Part II.

I have written several times over the past year and a half on our exploitation of the personal foibles of various celebrities. My own take has changed from a pretty typical liberal "tut-tutting" to a far more open position. I no longer believe that we must make a choice between the Angie/Brad stories and Congressional hearings on torture; one can pay attention, at some level of attention, to both without being either a crude ignoramus or a "serious person". I do not think the increasing incursion of tabloid "journalism" spells the death of the Republic. This last is more the death of journalism as a profession.

At any rate, I think some perspective on tabloid-style reporting is in order, to put what we read in perspective. One of the complaints often lodged against the stories one reads in Us, Life & Style and other such fodder is that they rely on anonymous sources offering rumor and unfounded allegation. The narratives change from week to week as the editors switch from building an individual up to tearing them down.

One thing I think it is important to remember is that these stories focus exclusively on what is extraneous to our reasons for paying attention to these folks in the first place. The exceptions are the so-called "celebutants" like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian who have done nothing to warrant our attention and fascination other than keep themselves before the public eye. They are famous for being famous, in other words. Leaving aside the Nicole Richies of the world, we pay attention to the lives of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer, because they attract our attention. They present themselves publicly through their professions as actors, entertainers, musicians, and as such create an illusion of familiarity that is exploited by the tabloids, who attempt to lift the curtain, as it were, on the person behind the persona. Of course, the end result is, more often than not, as much a fiction as the image we see on our movie and television screens. Or, at the very least, only part of the story.

Watching CSI has forced me to think about this particular issue in an interesting light. While itself just a TV series, it nevertheless presents certain commonalities (and not-quite-commonalities) in a way that has forced me to ask a question the answer to which is quite disturbing: Could any of us have our private lives placed under a microscope, all the details spread before those outside, and not appear just as jaded, immoral, and small as some of our celebrities are presented via the tabloids? None of us live exemplary lives. All of us have secrets we prefer to keep hidden. All of us have a fact or event in our lives we would prefer no one know about. Yet, the tabloids offer us a glimpse of some of our most famous names and faces, without make-up, outside the carefully crafted personas of their publicity agents that do not differ all that much from our own foibles, failures, sins and transgressions. The difference, I think, is that we can at least have the satisfaction of seeing that those who present a certain face to the public have far more complicated lives than they wish us to know about. Sometimes, these secrets are so intimate, most of us would no longer show our faces should that aspect of our lives become public knowledge. Would any of my readers survive having our sexual exploits available to public inspection the way, say Pamela Anderson has done? I admire her strength of character precisely because having that most intimate and secretive part of one's life suddenly become so graphic a part of our common currency of images would most certainly destroy me.

The tabloids are successful for a variety of reasons, although I think mindlessness isn't one of them. Rather, they are successful because they remind us that those society determines are to become well known by wide swaths of the public are just human beings. No more, no less. Angelina Jolie is not to be considered some kind of freak because she desires to adopt children from poor countries, even as she continues her recovery from substance abuse. Britney Spears needs our prayers and good thoughts, rather than church-lady head shaking for her various public melt-downs. None of us are any better, and quite a few of us are far worse. In the end, the tabloids succeed because the lives they present are no different from our own. We are a tabloid society. The checkout-line magazine racks just highlight this obvious reality.

Virtual Tin Cup

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