Celebrities the Media and the Law

By Rapping, Elayne | St. Louis Journalism Review, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Celebrities the Media and the Law


Rapping, Elayne, St. Louis Journalism Review


We live in a society in which celebrities have become, symbolically, our national royalty. With the coming of cable and the Internet, and the rise of pop culture beats on virtually every national newspaper, what is almost a national addiction to celebrity has gradually been taking over much of the print media and even more television news.

The roots of what I call the celebritization of American society and adoration of public figures are found in the 19th century, when political leaders began to be chosen on the basis of their "charisma" or personalities.

Today, pop-culture stars loom largest as celebrities, but political figures have not escaped the media's attention. Since the coming of television, politicians have increasingly been forced to conform to the norms of celebrity to make themselves electable. Starting with John F. Kennedy, surely one of the most telegenic of presidents, and one who received enormous media coverage based on his looks, his family life and his lifestyle, candidates have increasingly been "celebritized" in this way. Sen. Barack Obama, while a senator, appeared on the covers of People and other magazines.

The vast majority of celebrity news is trivial. The media make much ado whenever a celebrity does something, from get ting arrested for drunk driving to getting married or divorced. Yet, there are instances, primarily in legal cases, in which truly important issues are covered solely in terms of gossip and sensation, avoiding all serious consideration of major legal, social and political issues.

An example of a celebrity story in which serious legal issues were overlooked was when Michael Jackson was charged with child sexual abuse. The case dealt with the concept of "reasonable doubt," the Constitutional guarantee requiring that the prosecution must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant committed the crime.

In Jackson's case, a young boy had accused the pop star of sexual abuse. It was well known, due to the obsessive coverage of Jackson's lifestyle, that he regularly brought boys to his fantasy-like homestead and often had them sleep in his bed while their parents were elsewhere. Therefore, according to the media, it was a "slam dunk" case.

Even Nancy Grace, a lawyer turned TV personality, said on the air that "he slept with hundreds of boys and therefore was obviously guilty." If Grace, who had apparently gone to law school, could make such a statement, it is not surprising that less-informed media commentators made the same assumption.

It is also not surprising that there was mass outrage when Jackson was acquitted. And yet, it was obvious from a legal point of view that the acquittal was a foregone conclusion. For Jackson was not on trial for "sleeping with hundreds of boys," but only for sleeping with the one who pressed charges. And this boy and his mother, for a number of reasons, lacked credibility as victims and were seen as trying to make money from the case. They presented no hard evidence of the charges brought. Thus, the "reasonable doubt" was enormous. And no matter how much the public believed that Jackson was a pedophile, the prosecution could not meet its burden of proof. In fact, there is every reason to believe the case would never even have come to trial if Jackson were not a celebrity.

Fodder for tabloids

Another example involves the late Anna Nicole Smith. Her legal debacles continue to be fodder for media and tabloids, the most recent case being over the paternity of her infant daughter Dannielynn. Among the many scandals and gossipy nuggets about Smith, the obsession over the paternity of Dannielynn was among the most-covered and re-covered stories, because it was "sexy."

Another important legal case that Smith was involved in, and which continues today, is over the estate of her late husband, wealthy Texan J. Howard Marshall II. The case dates back to the mid-1990s, when Smith petitioned the courts for part of her husband's estate.

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