What The Media Won’t Tell You
NOT very long ago, it was possible to contemplate spending a relatively long and reasonably productive career in American journalism without ever having to type the words “Paris Hilton.”
That was then. This, sadly, is now.
Watching the cyclonic attention that swirled around Hilton’s court appearance this week, it was hard not to notice how closely our celebrity-besotted press now resembles Churchill’s famous description of the prewar Germans as a people “either at your throat or at your feet.”
Having benefited from the tabloid media’s attentions while it was in that latter posture, perhaps this rather odd young woman will now have to suffer through its assault. That, in fact, is the traditional arc of celebrity for celebrity’s sake. First the tabloid media’s various incarnations make you famous for nothing more than being famous. Then it turns in a fury of righteous indignation and devours you for, well, being famous.
It’s perverse but predictable.
Here is where the ritual dismissal of Hilton’s aimless life and self-absorbed character are supposed to occur. Let’s skip them.
If millions of people choose to be fascinated by a young woman who apparently feels that the best thing to do with wealth and privilege is to turn herself into an unpaid photographer’s model, what can you say? Like the inexplicable English affinity for spaniels, monarchy and the music of Frederick Delius, it’s simply one of life’s essentially harmless mysteries.
What isn’t harmless is the way in which so much of the serious news media checked its critical intelligence and judgment at the door of this particular feeding frenzy.
AN unexpected range of otherwise respectable news organizations devoted a stunning number of column inches and broadcast minutes to covering the hearing at which Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer sentenced Hilton to 45 days in jail for violating the probation she received for driving while under the influence of alcohol. Their coverage — and nearly all the extensive commentary that accompanied it — was remarkable not only for its volume, but also for the absence of most of the context and perspective serious newspaper and broadcast journalists usually deem essential when reporting on the criminal justice system.
Nobody in the mainstream media, for example, bothered to inquire very deeply into whether Sauer’s sentence was within the usual range for such an offense. That’s interesting, because how a judge employs their discretion is normally an important part of any court story. Had such questions been asked, the reporters would have found that Sauer’s sentence was unusually harsh for a defendant who had behaved as Hilton had. It was far more typical of the kind of sanction a judge might have imposed on somebody who had violated probation by drinking and driving again, which she did not do. (In that context, it’s also interesting that no one bothered to debunk early reports that Hilton also had failed to enroll, as her probation required, in a program to discourage alcohol abuse. In fact, she’s close to completing such a program.)
The harshness of the sentence ought to have loomed larger, when put together with Sauer’s unusual ruling forbidding Hilton from paying to go into one of the private jails usually open to suitable defendants with sufficient financial means. (The question of whether any rich person ought to be able to buy their way into a private jail is an entirely separate and, in many ways, far more important question.) The clear impression was that Sauer had decided to make an example of a spoiled young woman who was behaving as if her celebrity put her above the law — and it was an impression both the serious and tabloid press seemed to relish.
The tabloid press is somebody else’s problem but it’s troubling that none of the mainstream print or broadcast journalists commenting on the case pointed out that the American criminal justice system does not make examples of people. It penalizes people for specific individual acts and punishes them according to the law. We do not punish one person to instruct others. We rely on the public administration of disinterested and dispassionate justice to educate and deter.
We don’t make exceptions to this principle — not even for Paris Hilton.
So why are so many people and organizations who ought to know better behaving as if Hilton’s case is an exception?
The answer isn’t pretty, but it is disturbing.
MANY of the people who direct mainstream newspaper and television coverage of events like this are in a complete panic over the migration of increasing numbers of readers and viewers, particularly young ones, to the Internet as a source of information. That panic has engendered a kind of fog in which anxious editors and producers have fallen into a profound confusion. Many have begun to assume that availing themselves of the web’s technological opportunities entails embracing the ethics of its lacier fringes.
Coverage of celebrities in the popular media took a turn for the vulgar some years ago, when under then-editor Bonnie Fuller, US Weekly began generating huge newsstand sales by publishing photos and stories about movie stars and others caught off-guard in what previously had been private circumstances. Other print media soon followed, and they — in turn — gave rise to the celebrity-focused gossip sites that continue to metastasize across the Web. Many of them recently have turned to scooping up police reports and booking photos from minor offenses; the serious news organizations used to accord scant, if any, notice.
The mainstream media’s digital panic has changed all that. Editors are increasingly mesmerized by the number of “hits” — individual visits — these gossip sites receive when they post a given story. Worse, newspapers and some television operations have begun to record the number of hits individual stories on their online sites receive, publishing rankings of each day’s most popular stories.
Things like this week’s feeding frenzy, which doubtless produced the predictable number of hits. If you inserted Paris Hilton’s name into your grocery list and posted it on the web, you’d get tens of thousands of hits. They don’t mean anything, but that hasn’t stopped desperate news editors from grabbing onto what they mistake for useful information the way a drowning man or woman clutches at anything that might keep them afloat.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, currently is advertising for a reporter to fill a new “celebrity justice” beat.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing particularly shocking about Hilton’s problems, about her mistreatment by a court that may have lost its balance in the unaccustomed glare of public attention or, even, by the performance of the tabloid press. What is troubling to those who hope to see the mainstream news media carry a few shreds of its increasingly tattered editorial judgment into this brave new digital era, is the behavior of so many people in this business who should know better.
Changing public tastes may require the serious news media to give more frequent attention to celebrity ephemera. It ought not, however, be the same sort of attention given by the tabloids or by their hyperactive online spawn. The fact that a story you can’t avoid covering takes you into the gutter is no excuse for behaving as if you belong there.
This article is written by TIM RUTTEN and is posted on calendarlive.com (Paris isn’t the only one guilty). It was brought to my attention by a visitor “Sabrinia.” Thanks to her!
The parts that I highlighted talks about a taboo subject, but of course, I’ve mentionned them a million times. Now it’s a journalist who finally realizes the truth. That in itself, is quite remarkable in an age where journalism has become a joke, and where journalists depend on one another’s opinion. Finally, a journalist who stood up for the truth and ignorned the voice of the crazy majority. Now he, just like us, will be ridiculed and put down by the loudmouth haters.
This article reminds me of September 11th. The media reported everything they knew about the attacks, but failed to address the most important question: Why America was attacked on September 11th, 2001 – or name the causes if you prefer. But that’s another story.
TIM RUTTEN, may not know very well who Paris Hilton is. Some of the things he said about her is false and misleading. He may call her “spoiled” when it’s totally not true, but at least, he understands that you can’t use Paris Hilton and make an example of her.
If you agree with TIM RUTTEN, you may want to email him and thank him as a fan for writing such a rare article. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: May 12th, 2007
Time: May 12, 2007, 11:33 pm
Thank you for bringing attention to this very important subject not only for Paris Hilton’s case but for the abuse of justice that can happen to any of us while the news media do nothing but act like the idiocy prevalent in tabloid trash.
From: Carol Mariane
Time: May 14, 2007, 3:02 pm
Paris herself has said that she was working on an early morning video then went with sister Nicky to a charity event, had not eaten anything all day, yet drank a margarita. Anyone with an ounce of common sense, knows! “you” should not drink on an empty stomach and so, if you’re speeding to a fast-food place because you’re so hungry but you’re legally impaired, no matter who! you are, you’re going to get stopped, particulary if you happen to be driving with no headlights on and…..at night. Perhaps Paris should change publicists. I don’t understand someone in the biz, not reading a document, simply signing it and their publicist telling them he/she not being aware that their client’s license had been suspended.
A mature and responsible person, does not get in their vehicle, and drive…..after imbibing. Being hungry is no excuse for speeding.
Perhaps Judge Sauer is trying to get across to Paris that when you break the law, who you are, is irrelevant to the charges and the sentencing. Some people just don’t get it and possibly, Paris doesn’t. If! she “cleans” up her act, who’s to say the same thing won’t happen again, in the near future. She is a socialite and a party “girl” among her other accomplishments.