Magazine article New Criterion

Time on the Cross of Hype

Magazine article New Criterion

Time on the Cross of Hype

Article excerpt

Where were you and what were you doing when you heard that Anna Nicole Smith had died? Philip Kennicott led off one of his hugely portentous big-think pieces for The Washington Post's Style section--"The Fantasy of Happily Ever After: Anna Nicole Smith Stripped Marriage of Its Illusions" as the headline writer put it with happy absurdity--by calling this an office joke, but the joke was on him. That is, it wasn't a joke at all. People really will remember getting the news the way they remember the moment when they first heard that President Kennedy or Martin Luther King had been shot--or, I like to think, the way I remember the moment when it first dawned on me that the popular celebrity culture, having been quietly buying up shares in the hitherto dominant and supposedly serious media culture, had successfully launched its takeover bid.

It was one day in January of 1994, not long after I started writing this monthly meditation on the media. I was making myself some lunch as the sun came streaming in through the kitchen windows. When I turned on the ABC radio news at the top of the hour, the lead item was the latest in the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal. You remember that one, don't you? Aspiring Olympian figure-skater (Tonya) has her ex-husband, one Jeff Gillooly, hire a thug to whack her rival (Nancy) on the knee with a metal rod? Ring any bells? Miss Harding later took on and defeated Paula Jones in a celebrity boxing match on Fox. Anyway, I remember muttering to myself under my breath, "What on earth is that doing there?" Yet, even as I said it, I somehow knew the answer. We were living in a different world, and here was the proof of it. It was a post-Cold War, end-of-history sort of world which, before the year was out, would see "the trial of the century" of a former football star and minor celebrity for the murder of his wife and, before the decade was out, the dawning of celebrity-hood not only for Miss Jones but also for Miss Monica Lewinsky and the extramarital sexual practices of the President of the United States.

In short, it was a world in which celebrity gossip would move out of the shadows and dominate both politics and the media. Celebrities are the famous people we feel we know. Of course we do not know them. The people who forget that this familiarity is entirely an illusion, carefully fostered by the media in collaboration with the celebrities themselves, may become madmen and pests--sometimes stalkers and assassins. But the media create the illusion because it justifies their own existence as the Illuminati, a gnostic elite who know the truths that lie behind and beneath the public shows of fame and who can bring that information to market. In the wake of Mrs. Smith's death, The New York Times thought nothing of running a business section story on the changes it had brought to light in the commodity market in celebrity gossip. Poor People magazine had been caught flat-footed going large on the Astronaut Love-Triangle story in the issue that was just hitting the newsstands when the Anna Nicole story broke.

Not that People's story wasn't a great one. Captain Lisa Nowak, USN, who flew on the Space Shuttle last year, went to the Space Station, and walked in space, had finally spaced out. She put on diapers (so that she wouldn't have to make any rest stops) and drove across country from Houston to Orlando allegedly to kidnap or murder her fellow astronaut, Captain Colleen Shipman, USAF, whom she supposed to be her rival for the affections of a third astronaut, Commander William "Bill" Oefelein, USN. In any other week that story would have been a big seller for a gossip magazine, but not this week. Anna Nicole's death blew it out of the water, and a lumbering media dinosaur like People couldn't adapt in time. "The print traffic jam illustrates the larger problems facing the celebrity-news industry," wrote Maria Aspan for the Times: "especially the tenuous success of newsweeklies like People, Us Weekly, Star, and The National Enquirer. …

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