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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, May 03, 2012

THE LUST FOR CELEBRITY STATUS

Everybody everywhere wants to be famous
And everybody everywhere wishes they could tell
Everybody everywhere to go to hell
-Everclear, "Rock Star"

Paris Hilton
There was a time when journalism was about reporting when interesting or noteworthy things took place. When nothing interesting happened, the reporters could not be blamed, since all they did was record, not create. That's not so true these days.

Now journalism is often about creating news when there isn't any to fit their stories. So you get news stories about polls, man-on-the-street interviews, and even news stories about predicted rather than existing events. They aren't so much reporting news as creating it. If they don't have a story, they can run a poll, maybe tweaked a little to get the story they want, and then write about the poll. As Michael Chrichton said at the 2002 International Leadership Conference:
Today, of course everybody knows that "Hardball," "Rivera Live" and similar shows are nothing but a steady stream of guesses about the future. The Sunday morning talk shows are pure speculation. They have to be. Everybody knows there's no news on Sunday.

But television is entertainment. Let's look at the so-called serious media. For example, here is the New York Times for March 6, the day Dick Farson told me I was giving this talk. The column one story for that day concerns Bush's tariffs on imported steel. Now we read...

Mr. Bush’s action "is likely to send the price of steel up sharply, perhaps as much as ten percent.." American consumers "will ultimately bear" higher prices. America’s allies "would almost certainly challenge" the decision. Their legal case "could take years to litigate in Geneva, is likely to hinge" on thus and such.

Also note the vague and hidden speculation. The Allies’ challenge would be "setting the stage for a major trade fight with many of the same countries Mr. Bush is trying to hold together in the fractious coalition against terrorism." In other words, the story speculates that tariffs may rebound against the fight against terrorism.
While this allows the news to have content and even shape that content toward a desired end, it isn't really journalism at all so much as opinion disguised as reporting. And its about what is interesting, novel, and attention-getting rather than information.

This is where press releases, press conferences, photo ops, and PR events have been bad for the news as well. These events are not really of any significance, they're simply a useful way to help a client or idea get attention. And since certain ideas or clients are more appreciated by the legacy media than others, they'll almost always get notice while others will not. A press release by the Center for Science in the Public Interest will almost always get wide release. One by the Heritage Foundation will end up in the trash.

Terrorism is all about this. The point of terrorism isn't to win tactical victory or defeat one's opposing forces, it is about swaying public opinion and changing policy. Terrorists are aiming at what happens in the future, not winning now. They can be defeated and still accomplish their goals - look at what has happened in airports based on foiled terrorist attempts. Someone tries to bring a bomb in disguised as a drink, and now nobody can carry drinks on board.

These false events are set up to get attention rather than to accomplish anything significant or important. What happens at a PR event is far less significant than what people go away thinking about the target. Cutting a ribbon at a store isn't about ribbons, the cutter, scissors, or the opening, its about getting people to be aware of the location and think of it positively.

Which brings us to celebrity. In the same way, a celebrity isn't known for their great deeds or person, but for their celebrity status - they are well known for being... well known. They are shaped and presented to the world in careful staged events and through crafted image rather than known for their character and deeds. Most celebrities offer the world nothing other than their existence. Some are actors and musicians, but some are simply people who exist. Kim Kardashian isn't a special person who has contributed much or a person of singularly great character, she's just famous.

Kim Kardashian
And celebrity is so significant now its difficult to understand how or why. In years past, actors were considered lower than slug warts. They were filth, despicable human beings you never wanted to be seen with in public. They were well known for being not just people of low character, but liars for a living. That changed in the 20th century and I think largely because of the detached nature of entertainment and the studio system.

Actors were not someone you came and saw in person, they were someone you watched in their role in a distant, clinical sort of way on a screen or over the radio. Now instead of being a gritty human being with sweat and too much make up, they were distant luminaries, something that showed up to do something you loved and vanished. It was more difficult to connect them to their humanity and their actions, because they weren't living in your town or someone you could run into. They were ethereal, other.

And the studio system was very, very careful to manage the image and reporting on their stars to present them as paragons of humanity, wonderful people you could trust and admire, and aspire to. They were wealthy, but charitable! They were beautiful, but modest! They were exciting, but not scandalous! Their filthy, despicable personal lives had not changed from centuries past, it was just hidden, carefully covered up.

And so the actor turned from lying filth to matinee idol. And people started to dream about, want to be, and even worship these figures. In a culture without God, now suddenly people started to turn to little, tarnished gods. Idol is not an idle word; these celebrities are someone people look up to with the same sort of fascination and fixation that people in days long past looked up to gods and goddesses. Folks want to be close to them, be like them, and look up to them.

A cult of celebrity has replaced religion as the glue that keeps society together. A culture which does not have a shared religious focus cannot stay together, there has to be something which ties us all, no matter how diverse. In the past, that was the church, or local temple to Apollo. These days, its celebrities. If we don't all worship and honor the same god, we can at least find shared experience in worship of the celebrity. And if we all play a role in life, those who play the biggest role are the ones we all look up to.

Jake Halperin has written a book entitled Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction which looks at the mechanism of celebrity and how we respond to it. He set up a survey, asking kids if they would want to become famous and why, and he gave the survey to 750 American teenagers in three different school systems around the country.

One of the questions was this: If you could press a magic button that would make you
  1. Stronger
  2. Smarter
  3. More famous
  4. Beautiful
Which would you choose? Boys picked intelligence almost as often as fame, and girls picked fame by far the most. Another question asked about most desired professions:
  1. CEO of a Fortune 500 company
  2. President of Harvard or Yale
  3. Navy Seal
  4. Assistant to a star
  5. US Senator
Of those choices, number 4 - assistant to a star - was picked by girls by a huge margin. They picked 4 twice as often as US senator, three times as much as President of a university, and four times as much as a CEO. That's assistant to a star, not the actual star. Not "I want to be Anne Hathaway" but "I want to be Anne Hathaway's flunkie."

Now, 750 kids in a nation of over 300 million is considered fairly representative to statistic geeks, but its a tiny drop in the bucket, less than .01% of the population. But it does make me pause and consider. Do you really think most kids would answer differently? In your experience, do kids want more to be famous and rich or good and constructive? Celebrity has become so steeped in our culture it has turned us all a walnut brown color, particularly among young people, and particularly among girls.

Do you have a daughter? Does she have a wall of cut outs from magazines and pictures she's printed of idols? Does it remind you of anything?

Hindu ShrineWhen you were younger, did you have this? Do you still? How many times in cop shows have they gone into someone's house and find a wall of pictures and candles by a target and think "creepy stalker?" Just something to consider.

I was listening to a segment of the Nick and Artie Show - always entertaining, usually hilarious, but sometimes foul - and they discussed basketball and the television program Mob Wives. Nick mentioned that he wasn't fond of college basketball and pointed out how many thousand basketball games are on television each year. They both agreed, particularly Artie, that this was because of gambling, because of illegal and Vegas gambling operations that run around the events.

And that segued into the TV show Mob Wives, where they talked about how often it is that something one of the women says on television ends up getting one of their family members arrested. Arguments about who knows how to bury a body, who knows how to run a gambling operation or what have you end up the next week in the news of some guy getting frog marched to jail.

And they were amazed at how on earth the mob families could allow this show to be done, why on earth they let their wives be involved. Yet its not surprising. In a culture where being famous and on camera is so desired people will do self destructive, insane, and personally humiliating things just for a chance to be on TV or the movies, the basic principles of reason, cultural limitations, and promises go out the window. Yes, crime can only survive if people shut up about it, but this is a chance to be on TV! Look at me! I'm famous! Too bad about Murray but he'll be out in a few years.

We raise generation after generation with the first principle of feeling good about one's self, and have gotten the expected results: an even more narcissistic, selfish, and entitled generation than ever before. The participation trophy culture has gotten so bad adults are on the streets living in filth throwing a tantrum because things didn't turn out how they were promised and people aren't protecting them from the hardships of life and failures like when they were younger.

In the 1950s a personality test given regularly to school kids asked the question: Yes or No, I am an important person? In the 50s that number was 12%. By the late 80s, that number was over 80%. Is it really good that kids feel that they are important?

In an interview on the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Halperin points out that we've long figured the star system, that celebrity brings out narcissism and selfishness. He says that's mistaken, that celebrity doesn't generate that, it simply enhances a natural part in all of us, heavily reinforced by culture and education, especially in America. Its not that people of star material are turned into these monsters, but that the celebrity life simply enhances this.

LosersSchools seem to be moving away from the self-esteem fixation these days but the damage has been done. And western, especially American culture. Jane Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Young - and More Miserable than Ever Before did a study with college students, allegedly about social networking. She took the tests in, then without any regard to their results randomly told some students they had a rich social network and would do well in social settings, and told others that they would likely be lonely and had poor social skills.

Then she offered two solutions: read People magazine or talk to a specialist about networking and social activity. Overwhelmingly, she found that the ones she ran down as being lonely wanted the magazine. Seeking our worth and significance in celebrities is not a new phenomenon, but it is something not just embraced, but celebrated in our culture.

This does not help our culture in any way. News fixates on celebrity culture, and while Fox News is particularly bad about celebrity trials and missing little white girls, all of them tend to focus on celebrity events. Britney Spears shaving her head, Lindsey Lohan crying in court, who is married to whom, what baby is expected, where that child was adopted from, on and on. And while some of this is actually news, why is it news that major media outlets think is so important to report on?

Because this is what we want. Because this is where the money is. Because news reporting is a business and customers like to see this, so that's what gets the focus. Celebrity gossip blogs get far more hits than think blogs or news blogs. Celebrity reporting gets you eyeballs and money. And that means what is actually important, significant, and meaningful gets pushed aside.

Ask the average person on the street who Angelina Jolie is married to and who was that man's former wife was. Ask that same person where Kabul is located, or what President Obama thinks about abortion and which do you think will get you the most accurate answer?

I was in a dorm in college populated largely by engineering students, and many of them had no idea where my home state of Oregon was located, but they could list Michael Jackson's last two albums. This isn't new, its just gotten more grotesque. At least back in the 80s you had to have actually done something to become famous instead of just being an heiress.

When culture tells everyone they are a special and wonderful snowflake then promotes fame and celebrity above everything else then all you get are people who want fame without contributing a single thing to their world. People who expect things without earning them, people who demand without needing, and people whose foremost concern is themselves rather than their neighbors. And when that's true, we all lose.

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