There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the over-sized coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death and subsequent legal wranglings. Think Progress (via Jarvis) contextualizes what Ken Auletta, in the Washington Post, called “one of the more depressing moments in media coverage”:
NBC’s Nightly News devoted 14 seconds to Iraq compared to 3 minutes and 13 seconds to Anna Nicole. CNN referenced Anna Nicole 522% more frequently than it did Iraq. MSNBC was even worse — 708% more references to Anna Nicole than Iraq.
The lop-sided coverage largely ignored many key developments in Iraq, including the sixth downing of a U.S. helicopter in the past three weeks, the allegations that a deputy Iraqi health minister was aiding a Shiite militia in its attacks against U.S. troops, and the death of four Marines.
I was at the WeMedia conference in Miami when news of her death broke and even at that early moment the disdain for the over-wrought coverage that was to come was palpable. Val Prieto of Babalu (via Andy Carvin) pointed out the obvious: we are inundated with such stories because there is a demand. As Auletta said in the Post, “people like to be entertained and they don’t want to just eat their spinach.” In that vein, Bob Garfield “offers [a] defense of the trivial” on the latest On the Media.
Our proclivity to watch such celeb stories was confirmed this week when we learned that the ratings of the tabloid TV magazines were up during the all-Anna sweeps week.
A Pew study revealed the gendered aspect of audience behavior: “Of those who rated Smith’s death as the story they followed most closely, 72% are women.” The Pew Weekly News Interest Index, published February 16, also found that “most Americans feel the press has gone overboard in covering the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Fully 61% believe the Smith story has been overcovered, far more than the number saying that about any other recent story. Even so, a sizable minority (11%) followed Smith’s death more closely than any of last week’s other top stories.”
I asked my old professor Joseph Turow for his thoughts on how the popularlity of ANS’ death illustrated the “news that is good for you” v. “news we want” division. Turow took issue with my premise, saying that such a debate:
can sometimes be a false dichotomy, I think. The Smith story brings out fascinating social questions about love, marriage, age, mortality, parenting, adoption, paternity – so many issues that lie at the heart of US society. In some way pulling at these threads is “good for you”—that is, important for people to decide how they and their neighbors feel about these issues and why. Arbiters of news value, though, tend to define the right news—news that’s good for you–as news that has obvious political implications. But they are blind to the incredibly important pull of stories like the Smith story that dramatizes key issues that relate to what people worry about in their day to day lives.
News outlets that do both types of news in ways that jump-start discussions are, I think, doing the right thing.
The fact that the Smith story was the top story is not the fault of the news world. Good news systems are a mirror. They hold up a reflection of the world so that people can see themselves. If that mirror shows something unseemly and unbecoming then it is not the fault of the news it’s a reflection of society.
Where news goes wrong is when it goes from being the messenger to being the message. Where people get bored is when news produces celebrity instead of reporting on it.
I would argue that we require journalists to do more than merely mirror or own thoughts and desires, but rather to challenge them and present us with perspectives to which we might not be exposed otherwise.
The emailed thoughts of two friends conflict with those of Tippett and Turow. Kim (not to be confused with ANS’ friend Kimmie) wrote that “history will judge us harshly. we are boars… its gross overload.” Another friend surmised that our fascination is due to the fact that “people are bored with their own lives, and because that stuff often makes them feel better about themselves. ..Nicole, and those like her, are an escape from reality, not a connection to it. ..If your are not ON Jerry Springer, then you make fun of it, or you feel as though you are somehow a better human being (not just better educated, or better brought up, or better off — but better) for not airing your dirty laundry on national television.” This view is supported by Charles Goodstein, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical School, as quoted in that Post article: “There is a moralistic quality to this story that reassures the person that’s reading or watching that they would not have fallen this fate,” Goodstein said.
I would posit that a part of what we are witnessing in the obsessive ANS coverage is a well-educated coastal media elite belittling a troubled working-class Texan. To wit, in 1994, ANS filed suit against New York magazine for its use of a photo of her on the cover of its White Trash Nation issue. From ANS’ Wikipedia entry (which coincides very closely with a New York Times report on the filing of the lawsuit:
In the photo, she appears squatting in a short skirt and cowboy boots as she eats chips…. Her lawyer said that Smith was told she was being photographed to embody the “All-American-woman look” and that they wanted glamour shots. He further stated that the picture used was taken for fun during a break.
(The editor of New York magazine as the time was Kurt Andersen, who, if there is a media elite, is a charter member.)
Finally, The Economist gets right to the point in its Anna Nicole obituary:
…[W]hat you saw first, on meeting Ms Smith, were the Breasts. There were only two of them, but they made a whole frontage: huge, compelling, pneumatic. They burst out of tight red dresses—preferably red—or teased among feather boas, or flanked a dizzying cleavage that plunged to tantalising depths. These were celebrated, American breasts, engineered by silicon to be as broad and bountiful as the prairie.
With them, a girl from nowhere—or from Houston, Texas—could do anything. The body behind them waxed and waned, sometimes stout as a stevedore’s and sometimes almost waif-like, matching the little-girl voice; but the Breasts remained. “Everything I have”, Ms Smith admitted, “is because of them.”