Prankster Ashton Kutcher, the actor-turned-producer who pulled fast ones on most of young Hollywood with the show Punk'd, is now punkin' the hand that feeds - the celebrity media.
Heard the one about ditzy Paris Hilton consulting and cavorting but not quite canoodling with a bearded, be-robed spiritual adviser? While most antics from the ever-posing heiress would, at this point, be moderately believable, it turns out, the guru thing was merely Pop Fiction, a setup for Kutcher's new show that airs Sundays on the cable channel E!
Whether it was Kutcher's intention or not, the eight-episode run exposes, with sickening insight, just how low journalistic standards have sunk in the pursuit of so-called news about stars.
"It is basically holding up the entire press to ridicule for failing to check sources and failing to concentrate on the more important stories," says Walter M. Brasch, journalism professor at Bloomsburg University. "Maybe this could lead to someone actually checking some facts."
The show's modus operandi involves celebrities, like Hilton, first complaining about how silly the paparazzi are - though they probably wouldn't exist without them.
Then the stars head out on the town, tooling around obvious spots in their sport utility vehicles, teasing the paparazzi like matadors egging on bulls in the ring.
The photographers, of course, document whatever mundane activity the star engages in - like Hilton shopping (shopping?) with the swami. Media outlets then run with the bogus news.
In the case of Hilton finding religion - with, as it turns out, a scraggly-haired actor - the story ran in the tabloids, on online celebrity news sites and even in mainstream newspapers.
Consider the making of the segment on Avril Lavigne's baby bump. As everyone knows, if there's one thing paparazzi can't resist, it's a baby bump - real or alleged.
The spot opens with the pop star holding forth on the state of modern journalism. "People can start a rumor," Lavigine says. "Someone starts a rumor on a Web site. And then everyone picks it up, and it's totally not true and it's absolutely crazy. ... That's why I think doing this today, just to like show people how crazy and out of control it is, is perfect."
The slim, childlike singer tries on various shirts, posing this way and that in a mirror to assess the look, smoothing the material as it strains over a subtle, strapped-on bump.
She and her husband, musician Deryck Whibley, talk about how rumors of her pregnancy crop up almost seasonally, so relentlessly that they've had to tell their parents not to believe any news about impending grandchildren unless it's them calling with the announcement.
"If we walk into a baby store, it's confirming it basically; it will say 'confirmed' in the next US Weekly," Whibley predicts.
Which is exactly how it goes.
The couple, along with the requisite posse of friends and bodyguards, rolls up to a popular Los Angeles shopping area and, with baby bump bouncing, stops by two children's boutiques.
Smelling Pablum in the water, the paparazzi circle and feed.
TV critics have reviewed Pop Fiction with a mixture of delight, disgust and despair.
"Celebrity journalism is an insatiable beast that requires round-the-clock feeding," wrote Vinay Menon, The Toronto Star's TV columnist. "So by sprinkling a few bogus nuggets into the trough, Pop Fiction is essentially poisoning the entire supply of these non-essential victuals."
Hartford Courant TV columnist Roger Catlin says the program reveals the sausagelike nature of making entertainment news.
"You may never believe anything you see from gossip shows again," he wrote, adding, "(if you ever did)."