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Media say 'Enough already'

The Baltimore Sun

Anyone who isn't living under a rock is well aware that Anna Nicole Smith is dead, that Britney Spears shaved her head, that Paris Hilton attended yet another party and that an American Idol contestant might have had a wardrobe malfunction in front of a camera.

We know all this whether we like it or not.

The saturation coverage of these and other celebrity-laden happenings has broadened the media's own definition of news, even as some editors and news directors struggle to redirect audiences' attention to matters of greater substance.

Such was the concern within journalistic circles over the excesses of such coverage that last month the Associated Press - the world's largest news agency - decided it would temporarily abstain from running stories about Hilton.

"Editors just wanted to see what would happen if we didn't cover this media phenomenon, this creature of the Internet gossip age, for a full week," the wire service said in an article March 2, after it had resumed its Hilton coverage with a 300-word story about her arrest for driving with a suspended license.

To the AP editors' surprise, none of the thousands of media outlets that run the agency's stories called to ask for a Hilton update. "No one felt a newsworthy event had been ignored," the AP reported, adding that, to be fair, "nothing too out-of-the-ordinary happened in the Hilton universe" until her arrest.

But that was not the only recent attempt to restrict or ignore events in celebritydom, although it might seem hard to tell from a glance at some cable news shows.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams announced on his blog one day last month that he would not be reporting that night on Spears' baldness or on the court hearing over where to bury Smith, a former stripper whose main claim to fame lay in having married a very rich, much older man.

Craig Ferguson, host of CBS's Late Late Show, said on the air that he had decided to stop making fun of Spears, whose marital troubles and public appearances without underwear earned her a great deal of somewhat sordid attention. Ferguson, who long ago acknowledged having had problems with alcohol, called Spears one of the "vulnerable."

But in some editors' eyes, none of these stories remotely merits the attention they are getting.

"The scope of the coverage gets larger and larger while the level of the story gets lower and lower," said Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, who described Spears, Hilton and Smith as mere "low-rent celebs."

Coverage of O.J. Simpson's murder trial in 1995 and the murder of JonBenet Ramsey the following year were restrained, Rieder said, in comparison with the "frenzy" over the current crop of celebrities.

"It's the trivialization of news, this endless coverage of not very interesting people," said Rieder, who acknowledged having threatened, in jest, to quit as an assistant managing editor at The Milwaukee Journal in 1988 unless Roy Orbison's obituary was placed on the front page. (A "teaser" ultimately ran on Page One, with the full story inside the paper. Rieder kept his job.)

From Rieder's point of view, AP's experiment with its Hilton coverage was on the mark.

"I don't think the world would be diminished if there were a Paris Hilton blackout - with all respect to Paris Hilton," he said.

But while stories about Hilton and her sometime pals Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie serve as innocuous fodder for magazines such as US Weekly and People, the agitation over Smith's passing was something of a different order. In The Charlotte Observer, columnist Walker Lundy wrote that "TV went dead-on nuts" over the story.

"If George W. Bush had been found naked and unconscious in the bed next to her, the poor woman would not have received more TV airtime," wrote Lundy, a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

He complained that TV's "over-coverage would be amusing, except many Americans lump television and newspapers together as 'the media' when they offer criticism. Unfortunately, when TV news looks stupid, the rest of the media look stupid by association."

In a similar vein, the editor of The Albany Times-Union, Rex Smith, addressed a column to those "tut-tutting about 'the media' overdoing coverage" of Spears and Smith. "I must politely insist," he wrote, "that you stop lumping us in with cable news channels and tabloids."

Most newspapers across the country, he wrote, have not overplayed those stories. "You may grumble that nobody should have paid so much attention ... in the first place, a defensible view only if you want the news media to be disconnected from reality."

Still, Smith said, he's had enough: "Take both stories away from us, please. I'm not putting them on the front page of this paper. ... "

But many did. And on TV, the 24-hour demands of cable news prompted producers to go into overdrive. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducts a daily tally of media coverage, said that the Smith story was the No. 1 subject on cable for a week and that it consumed half of news airtime in the first two days after her death on Feb. 8.

A Web site called TheLeftCoaster.com, which also tracks the media, reported that Fox News Channel devoted far more coverage to Smith than to the scandal over inadequate care of wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

On March 2, the site said, Fox News "featured only 10 references to Walter Reed compared to 121 of Anna Nicole - roughly 12 times the coverage." That same day, MSNBC had 84 references to the Walter Reed outrage versus 96 for Smith, while CNN seemed to be making more conventional news judgments, with 53 mentions of Reed to 40 for Smith.

"We have an obligation to cover not just the interesting but also the important," said Al Tompkins, a former reporter and TV news director who teaches journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "There is no excuse for allowing this kind of salacious news to squeeze out the really important stories. Anna Nicole doesn't rise to that."

On the other hand, Tompkins said, he can see why people are attracted to stories about the famous.

"The Anna Nicole story isn't just about celebrity," he said. "It's also about a dysfunctional family, and who doesn't relate to that? The Diana story wasn't just about a princess; it was about unreciprocated love. That story resonates. Sometimes celebrity stories are about deeper conflicts."

In addition, he said, there can be a certain voyeuristic satisfaction in seeing the mighty fall.

"The little person always likes to see the big person taken down because it makes it less painful to be the little person," he said. "People fantasize about how it would feel to be that celebrity, but those stories also make it easier not to be that celebrity."

Some newspaper readers and TV watchers bristle at the barrage of trivia, often at the expense of stories that truly matter, such as the Iraq war.

"There's such a disconnect between the alleged urgency of Bush's war and the complacency and mild distaste most Americans have for it," said Charles Hayes, an author and magazine writer who lives in Eastchester, N.Y. "The coming war in Iran, what's really going on in Iraq, what's really going on in Israel and Palestine, what's really going on with our health care system, and the future of our entitlement programs, global warming and the denialists. When is our media going to report on this stuff?"

Jamison Foser, managing director of Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group, said TV news outlets regularly fail to give time to important issues even as they run with the mundane. For instance, he said, NBC Nightly News on Tuesday ignored a congressional hearing into the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys - an act that Democrats say was intended to smother corruption investigations - but ran a story on Jenna Bush's new book deal.

"There's a place for the People magazines of the world to cover the Anna Nicole story," Foser said, "but when people like Wolf Blitzer devote extensive coverage to her, then more important stories are being overlooked."nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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