I knew I was in trouble the day I wrote a headline about Michael Jackson being a gay crossdresser. He wasn’t even in the ground yet, his dear family was mourning, and here I was exposing an intimate speculation about his life for the whole world and their grandma to read.
This was Michael Jackson. I spent all of 1984 kissing the cover of the Thriller album, and 25 years later here I was throwing him under the bus for… traffic?
My work as a showbiz reporter for a popular website often leads to a dichotomy of values. My position can be positive or straight-up provocative; exciting or, sometimes, brutal. I hunt like a fox for updates on the Gosselin divorce, but then worry that their children are traumatized. My story on Jude Law’s lovechild scored mentions all over the web, but I was secretly bummed out that the ex-girlfriend had been forced to compose a baby registry alone. Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to work close to the stars… but now that I’m a reporter, I often face an ethical dilemma.
Sister Kathryn King is a spiritual director and Franciscan Sister of Peace at St. Ignatius Loyola Parish on Manhattan’s ritzy Park Avenue. Sr. Kathryn says that unfortunately we forget to make an important distinction when we choose which stars to emulate, and she sets the bounds for us, explaining: “There are [celebrities] who accomplish something of significance that contributes to the common good in some way, and they develop a reputation based on their competency or contribution.” Morally and psychologically, we can feel pretty okay about following these stars. But, she continues, “then there are other [famous people] who seek to become famous for its own sake. They value notoriety and money no matter how it’s acquired, or who is harmed.” Sr. Kathryn says that an important question for us to keep in mind is, Does our culture value being famous over other values such as education, family, personal health, or making a social contribution? In other words, it’s not genuinely positive for us to be intrigued just by good looks, shocking interviews and wealth.
Shameless and sheer
All over the world, iconic and attractive personalities exist for our shameless and sheer consumption. Their images tell us that we should want to live like them; that if you’re not pining to be closer to their superlative lifestyles, then there’s something wrong with you. We buy the magazine with Robert Pattinson on the cover because supposedly every American woman has fallen under his sexy English gaze. We spend three hours worth of minimum wage work on a cinema ticket to sniff out sparks between Jennifer Aniston and her much younger co-star. Famous people are engaging characters who offer something more compelling than our reality… but what is their business doing to us?
First and foremost, Hollywood has to sell. Paul Duddridge is a Los Angeles-based entertainment coach and former talent agent who boasts a client list that includes major film actors and network TV stars. Duddridge says his clients’ single most important task is to sell their personality to the public. Their charm and ability to connect with their audience even outweighs the quality of their performance; as Duddridge says, “A performer’s acting skills are not on sale, his charm is.” What we want most from a celebrity is for them to seem like our friend, like they’re someone we could touch and have for ourselves. In Western culture — where buying into a brand is well known to satiate us — the most popular entertainers have the power to sweep us off our feet. As Duddridge puts it, “[Famous people] don’t only deliver a product — they deliver a feeling as well.”
Some experts have theorized that the feeling we crave when we consume pop culture buzz is actually frustration — that we’re gluttons for punishment when it comes to peeping into the lives of the rich and famous; the voyeuristic view of what we can’t have hurts so good. But Philadelphia psychologist Doris Jeanette, Psy.D., goes further, saying that we hyper-consume media and entertainment out of an avoidance of dealing with our own reality. She explains, “People actually use an obsession with a celebrity to avoid their own issues and their own anxiety… because any obsession is based on anxiety.” She says celebrity-stalkers are usually trying to escape the boredom of their own lives, and the only solution to this fear of averageness is to shut out the noise of the media and focus instead on “making [one’s] own life more interesting and more challenging.”
Looking for leaders
However, even for those of us who believe our lives are already interesting and challenging, celebrities can still be intriguing. Is that a bad thing? Duddridge doesn’t think so. As he points out, “Humans look for leaders. Association with some kind of huge brand gives us comfort. It gives us direction and identity.” Duddridge says people just want to belong and be part of a group. Psychologically, connecting to others — celebrities or the public — can be healthy, and we can learn from the extraordinary lives of the entertainers who captivate us. Jeanette agrees: “Famous people can provide inspiration and motivation for us to live a better life.” She says that as long as celebrities have emotional support to help them cope with the abnormal energy around them, they can usually be excellent role models for the rest of us.
Brandon Mendelson has an inside take on high-profile success. Mendelson is a Twitter celebrity and grad student at the University of Albany, studying American history with a concentration in pop culture. He follows Duddridge and Jeanette’s camps, saying, “[Celebrities] are our model for success. It’s not about copying what they’re doing… it’s about unlocking the secret to their success and trying to translate it into our own.”
So where does that leave a showbiz journalist like me who relies on celebrity news for my own success? Sr. Kathryn says I have to rely on my judgment. Important questions for me to ask myself as I’m writing a headline or story are the following:
- Are there images or reputations that require special protection? Stories exploiting the negative experiences of children or personalities with known physical or emotional challenges demand kid gloves, if any coverage at all. Sr. Kathryn says our culture is rapidly damaging the psyche of American children — and child stars — by portraying young celebrities in vulnerable and sexually compromising situations.
- What are the personal guidelines that I live by? There’s a difference between reporting useful information and selling a scandal; between working as a journalist and a celebrity gossip. Sr. Kathryn says I need to ask what about this story compels me personally, and is there a reasonable chance that it will contribute to culture in some way?
- What is the story about this person or situation that’s not being told? What aspects of their humanity, suffering, generosity and goodness are being left out, and am I exploiting just a facet of their personhood or life? As a Christian who happens to be a reporter, I have to operate on the presumption that every person is worthy of love, is capable of redemption, and that at their core they possess the spark of God — no matter how despicable they might appear in the tabloids.
When the deadline hits, the fact is, part of my duty to my professional growth and my organization is to keep driving traffic. For now I’ll continue reporting the sometimes ridiculous narratives of off-the-wall celebs and writing provocative posts. Am I feeding the societal beast? Maybe sometimes… but I try to balance it with good news. Every day in the media, celebrities surface as attentive parents, devoted spouses, philanthropists and spiritual self-investors, and I try to tout all that too. Contrary to popular perception, morality still sells. To echo the words a fellow editor recently emailed me, “It’s not always easy… but I like to use my power for good.”