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Caution: Media Ahead



There's been plenty discussion lately about misbehaving celebrities and the media that love them. Not only has the local daily supported a public forum on "celebrities gone wild," but real-life celebrities who recently visited Richmond have also commented on the never-ending topic.

During his talk at the Landmark Theatre during the Richmond Forum, actor/producer Michael Douglas was asked what had changed during his tenure in show business. Because we live in a constantly fed, 24/7 news cycle where every waking moment of celebrity life is caught on tape, he said, "Every mistake magnified a thousand-fold."

Douglas recalled that when he and his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, had their first child, members of the paparazzi camped outside their home, tuning into baby monitors in hopes of catching intimate conversations. That's part of the reason the couple moved to Bermuda.

Sadly, most of us can't escape to a resort island.

Indeed, it's pretty pathetic when graphic photos appear online of the bloody menstrual stains of slow-motion train wreck Britney Spears, who continually exposes herself during death-defying road trips to Starbucks. As part of her riotous show at the Byrd Theatre, comedian Margaret Cho referenced Britney several times, saying how bad she felt after seeing the infamous "period photos" and telling the crowd that the only way she could help the situation was to talk about her own "heavy flow."

But even sadder than crude Internet photos is money-grubbing mainstream media, both TV and print. In today's so-called liberal-leaning media, the emphasis is always on profit, not on what is healthy or even essential for a well-informed public. Real news keeps getting short shrift, or it's disappearing altogether. Corporate honchos know that sensational headlines such as "Bald Britney Injects Her Babies With Ecstasy!" or "Raging Lindsay Lohan Rams Assistant With Taco Truck" earn far more readers than politics or the latest war news. (How depressing is the word quagmire?)

Last year, Republicans got a taste of tabloid justice with the nonstop homosexual scandals involving their anti-gay legislative crusaders. But most of the tabloid audience still prefers real celebrities to politicians: What could possibly be exciting or sexy about elderly John McCain flashing the cameras when stepping out of a Ferrari, or hooking up with a lobbyist for that matter? The guy looks like a month-old pumpkin that's been left out in the rain.

But the question remains: Why do we continually lap up such cultural vomit? Are our lives that boring? Maybe it's our craving for dramatic tragedy, the communally shared comfort we take from watching the most successful members of society plummet from great heights, proving their essential humanness. Or maybe it's just more fun to read.

Manipulated as a magic cash pony since birth by everyone in her life, Britney Spears has a history of suicide and addiction in her family, so is it really any wonder this emotionally untethered adult-brat is self-destructing?

The other big pop-star disaster of late is recent Grammy winner Amy "Rehab" Winehouse, who looks more like a crackhead bag lady pushing a grocery cart filled with dead squirrels.

One of the most interesting people I've interviewed on the subject is Dr. Drew Pinsky, longtime radio host of "Loveline" and, of late, VH1's "Celebrity Rehab." Pinsky can seem like another hokey Dr. Phil, answering the time-honored questions with feel-good blurbs, but he actually keeps one leg in his Southern California medical practice, working diligently with the severely addicted.

"I've always wanted to eliminate the term 'addiction' and call it 'reward activation disorder,'" he told me, "because that's what it is: an amping up of the need for escalating reward."

Pinsky believes something substantial happened around the 1950s with the development of antibiotics and hormonal contraceptives. "Before 1950, almost half of American families could expect a child to die," he recently told Rolling Stone. "Way more women could expect to die during childbirth. Living past 50 was sort of extraordinary. Now death and dying don't really exist to us. We don't need to deal with it. And then with birth control, sexuality became unhinged from a biological reality. Throughout human history, sex carried with it heavy consequences. It could kill you. Suddenly we were unhinged from that, and I think our culture has been rattling ever since."

Certainly a big concern with modern celebrity is how it affects children when yesterday's clean-cut, product-pushing, preteen role models become tomorrow's porn-making, sidewalk-puking, meth-and-toilet-water injecting howler monkeys. I went to the source recently and asked a class of middle-school girls how they felt about the influence of Spears and Winehouse, and here is what they had to say:

"Nobody likes them. They're retards."

"They're just stupid for messing up their lives."

"They make God sad when they have premarital sex."

"They all go to rehab, but that doesn't ever help."

"It's the paparazzi's fault -- stars are under a microscope."

"They're freaks. … My grandmother is a psychiatrist and wants to help them."

"She needs to go in the house and stay in the house until she's better. … She needs to go shopping at Target, because Target humbles people."

"Miley Cyrus is still on Disney, so at least she'll never get pregnant."

"Dr. Phil should not be a friend; he's a poseur."

"My sister edited Britney's Wikipedia page so that it said she died yesterday choking on a Big Mac."

"[Winehouse's] teeth make me want to gag. … She needs to hurry up and die."

Harsh. One minute they love you, the next you're worm food for the slag heap. Of course, children can't be expected to fully comprehend the cumulative effects of such degrading imagery and lowbrow coverage — from the loss of IQ points to ingrained cynicism to a distrust of public figures and the media. The only way to change this trend is for the public to stop supporting this sort of brown journalism, whether that means not buying tabloid rags or bypassing the nightly celebrity shows featuring such late-breaking news as: "Marie Osmond chokes on cupcake — brother Donny in tears!"

Next time you watch these shows, just check out the commercials and ask yourself: Do I really want to be a member of this target audience? S

Brent Baldwin is Style Weekly's music editor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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