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7.29.2004

The Kiss Behind the Celebrity Press

There are several jokes going around about the press. One of them is: What distinguishes a political journalist from a celebrity journalist?

Answer: The actor's schedule.

As the media succumb increasingly to their celebrity myopia, a simple appeal should be made: Stop kissing up to celebrities who wish to comment on politics, who wish to participate in political coverage and who wish to be elected into political office.

This goes for reporters, producers, cameramen, photographers, editors and publishers. This goes for television and print, network and cable, newspaper, magazines and the Internet.

What's happened most recently? Actor Ben Affleck charmed the media buncombes at last month's Democratic Convention which led one Fox News' commentator to ask him, "Besides the tax issue, what's the biggest issue on your mind?"

In July, the name of Mike Ditka, former coach of the Chicago Bears, captured national news. For what? One would have thought Ditka had announced his candidacy. Instead he had only been approached about a run for the US Senate from Illinois which he later declined.

The same pattern appeared last week when CNN.com ran the same story for five days--unusual for any story--with the title "Joe Piscopo, New Jersey Governor?" Piscopo, a cast member of Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, has not even announced his gubernatorial candidacy for New Jersey. Neil Cavuto of Fox News picked up the story and said in his commentary, "Why do we always select our elected officials from the same petri dish? Like only senators or governors can run for president. I say, why not CEOs, or teachers and yes, comedians?"

The problem isn't that comedians or celebrities are running for office. The problem is how we in the media disproportionately cater to them over the CEO and the teacher.

Neither Mr. Cavuto nor Fox News nor CNN has yet to spotlight any CEO or any Grade School Teacher with Internet or Prime Time media attention.

Sadly, the news media has tried to justify their celebrity addiction with the excuse that people tend to listen to celebrities more. This excuse will not be found in any journalism 101 textbook. No news reporter or newsroom will ever favor the replacement of "Fit to Print" or "Fair and Balanced" with "Solely because the people want to see it."

No longer do the media hunt for the most qualified news sources with experience in political office or academic posts, in the military or business. Instead, after carefully siphoning the film aristocracy from the television bourgeois, they dress up for commentary those celebrities who have established a rich pedigree of political opinions or appearances.

This virus has spread so widely that even professional media critics have caught it. The former Brill's Content in the summer of 1998 ran a guest editorial critical of journalism. Who was the author? Actor George Clooney whose qualifications foundered around the fairly irrelevant fact that his father had once been a news anchor on a local news station.

Though the silver, paid in ratings, may help feed and keep the best and brightest journalists, the media unwittingly prop up, as by-product, the Hollywood thespocrats with political legitimacy. The music-rap artist Sean 'Puffy' Combs is gaining national coverage by publicly encouraging young people to vote. This coverage by itself is becoming the electorate's litmus test for political office--should Mr. Combs, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, choose to seek it.

Is this surprising? Having overcome the traditional firewall of the press, why shouldn't the public follow and accept celebrities as political touchstones too? In their defense, celebrities claim they too should be able to talk about politics like anyone else. They are right.

George Washington was described as a "celebrity" by the statesman Gouverneur Morris in 1785. The 18th century Shakespearean actor David Garrick was a distinguished member of Samuel Johnson's literary circle. And it's possible that somewhere at sometime in 1960, comedian Joey Bishop had some interesting observations about the islands Quemoy and Matsu.

But I don't recall Walter Cronkite chasing down Bishop on the 1960 Democratic convention floor to get his take on US policy towards China shouting, "Mr. Bishop, America wants to know."

It's not celebrities, but the press that is wrong for giving celebrities a platform. This is a trend that has not tapered. There is no good reason, there is no real excuse. For the media to prop themselves with excuses or dismiss the subject with the cynicism of a prom-queen giggle would undermine the same honesty and self-critique it demands from everyone else.

Should the hypnotic glitter fade away, the danger will be that journalists, again betraying standards of impartiality, will swing as wildly in penance. They will quietly and suddenly turn to set their teeth into the same celebrity absurdity they helped create.

After this celebrity farce has reached its Guernica-like nadir and journalists have washed their hands of the sin, they will then coyly ask the rest of us, "Did you do this?" to which we should reply,

"No. You did."

S. Schudy

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