Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940

Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940

Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940

Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940

Synopsis

Few features of contemporary American culture are as widely lamented as the public's obsession with celebrity--and the trivializing effect this obsession has on what appears as news. Nevertheless, America's "culture of celebrity" remains misunderstood, particularly when critics discuss its historical roots.

In this pathbreaking book, Charles Ponce de Leon provides a new interpretation of the emergence of celebrity. Focusing on the development of human-interest journalism about prominent public figures, he illuminates the ways in which new forms of press coverage gradually undermined the belief that famous people were "great, " instead encouraging the public to regard them as complex, interesting, even flawed individuals and offering readers seemingly intimate glimpses of the "real" selves that were presumed to lie behind the calculated, self-promotional fronts that celebrities displayed in public. But human-interest journalism about celebrities did more than simply offer celebrities a new means of gaining publicity or provide readers with "inside dope, " says Ponce de Leon. In chapters devoted to celebrities from the realms of business, politics, entertainment, and sports, he shows how authors of celebrity journalism used their writings to weigh in on subjects as wide-ranging as social class, race relations, gender roles, democracy, political reform, self-expression, material success, competition, and the work ethic, offering the public a new lens through which to view these issues.

Excerpt

At first he was simply the "dark horse, ” the shy, obscure Midwesterner determined to fly solo, the least publicized of the aviators seeking to win the "race” and become the first to complete the dangerous flight across the Atlantic. Because he avoided reporters and the media circus that had developed around the other teams of aviators, little was known about Charles A. Lindbergh. Indeed, until his arrival on Long Island in May 1927 he was nobody. and though his backers in St. Louis had hired two press agents to accompany him, during the week he was in New York Lindbergh remained aloof from the publicity mongering in which rivals engaged. Instead he obsessed over the condition of his plane and the vagaries of the weather. When the press referred to him it was often as the "Flying Fool, ” a moniker that reflected his obsessiveness and the widespread belief that a solo flight was almost certainly suicidal.

All of this changed on May 22, when seemingly against the odds Lindbergh reached the European continent and landed at an airfield outside Paris. Suddenly Lindbergh became the hottest name in the newspaper business. Reams of material about him appeared in the press, detailing every angle of his flight and seeking to illuminate the man who had performed this spectacular feat. the torrent of publicity continued for days, as reporters scurried to learn about Lindbergh's background and personality. Within a week of his flight he had become the most highly publicized person in the world, the subject of an unprecedented out- pouring of news and human-interest journalism. Recast by the press as "Lucky Lindy, ” he was now instantly recognizable, the details of his life well known to millions of people who two weeks before had never heard of Lindbergh or met him in person. To Lindbergh's dismay, many of these details were spurious, the products of rumor and gossip that newspaper editors were willing to publish to satisfy the enormous public demand for information about him. Even worse, much of the information published focused not on aviation, as Lindbergh had hoped, but on . . .

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