With the death of reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith yesterday, a ferocious barrage of Marilyn Monroe-like images and scattershot speculation was instantly loosed across the on-air and online landscape of 24-hour news.
From a former flame describing on MSNBC how she kissed, to Fox and CNN hosts stressing the "mysterious" circumstances of her death as they queried medical experts, the story lines driving the wall-to-wall coverage yesterday careened from tragic-death-of-sex-goddess to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
The one constant: The story was consistently framed in a breathless tabloid manner.
"Who's the Daddy?" one headline on Fox News Channel screamed over the images of two men - Larry Birkhead and Howard K. Stern, either of whom might be the father of the dead woman's 5-month-old daughter.
On the Internet, the Drudge Report ran the news at the top of its site and linked to stories on Web sites run by the Reuters news agency, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and others.
The Drudge site provided its own headlines, invariably more dramatic than those on the stories to which it linked: "SHOCK: Collapsed at Casino in Florida" or "She Died Like Marilyn."
Initially, The New York Times' response was more subdued, with a headline several items down on its main Web page. But it subsequently posted an image of Smith and her late son, Daniel, as the lead photo on the page.
The Times linked to a story by Tom Zeller Jr. that proclaimed a less-than-certain announcement: "Word on the wires is that Anna Nicole Smith - the buxom former Playboy model, occasional actress and singer, reality-television star, diet-pill peddler and, arguably most famously, the wife of billionaire oil baron J. Howard Marshall II - has died."
The accompanying photo showed Smith in what appeared to be a red negligee, far more revealing than The Times usually allows.
TMZ.com, a Los Angeles-based site that specializes in celebrity videos, went full-bore on Smith's death, with seven separate headlines on its main page and links to another seven stories about her. The site, like many others, posted a slew of responses from readers.
Among the few TMZ responses that can be repeated in a family newspaper: "Anything to get out of the paternity test!" (The comment referred to contentions by Birkhead and Stern that each is the father of Smith's baby.)
Another TMZ reader wrote: "The only victim in all this is her poor baby daughter."
At afternoon news meetings, editors of daily newspapers pondered how to play the story in their morning editions. Many print journalists who see celebrity news as barely meriting attention had to grapple with the fact that, although Smith had a hapless career as a public figure, she occasionally was involved in authentic news events, as when her effort to collect on her late husband's estate made it to the Supreme Court.
At The State in Columbia, S.C., executive editor Mark Lett said the story would be played modestly on Page 1, with a brief summary referring readers to the full story about Smith's death inside the paper.
The decision "acknowledges that she's a person of public interest without giving it the same play you might give to a more traditional news figure who passed," Lett said. "We're assuming that there'll be saturation bombing on TV," he said.
"We're not going to ignore it, but we're not going to treat it like the second coming."
He was right about TV - at least 24-hour cable news. But more air time did not make for better coverage.
Intense pressure for instant reaction combined with the fact that Smith clearly embodied contradictory meanings made for much on-air confusion as to what Smith's life represented.
Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the New York Daily News, told Fox viewers that her life suggested a "certain kind of really lousy Hollywood script," while celebrity journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell called Smith's story "an American tragedy."