[From The Dallas Morning News]

Media churn through celebrities like they're going out of style


By TOM MAURSTAD / The Dallas Morning News

Today's media have become a star-making microwave, with an endless procession of celebrities and entertainment-as-news stories.

Throw them in, zap to a boil, toss them aside and throw in the next.

Consider the celebrity flashes filling broadcasts and newsstands in recent weeks: Michael Jackson's baby-dangling controversy, Winona Ryder and her shoplifting trial, the engagement of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, the divorce of Nicolas Cage and Lisa-Marie Presley, the legal tribulations of Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston, and the ongoing spectacle of Anna Nicole Smith.

Tune in, turn on, flip open – and there they are.

"That's life in this multimedia, multitasking era of entertainment news," says Michael Porte, a communications professor at the University of Cincinnati. "We have all these different forms of media coming at us now, so when a story catches fire it really seems to be burning everywhere we turn.

"It's an almost automatic response to think, 'Hey, this must be important.' But since so much of what's reported as news today is based on its entertainment value, the reality is, it isn't," he says.

As the celebrities flash and fade, as their scandals surge and recede, it's as if society is suffering from a pop culture version of attention deficit disorder, flitting from story to story in a restless search for the next sensation.

"I think a lot of this is a reflection of the anxiety and stress people are feeling in their everyday lives," says Noelle Nelson, a clinical psychologist whose most recent book is Everyday Miracles. "People's lives are so complex. First, there are the sheer number of things they have to keep straight in their personal lives – beeper, cellphone, e-mail, all the work and family demands. And then there is all the stuff around them – random shootings, terrorism, road rage.

"With all that anxiety, we can't keep anything in our heads for long. It's easier to deal with a blur of ever-changing celebrity stories than with complicated stories that demand our attention."

With celebrities being heated up and wolfed down like convenience-store sandwiches, there's a constant need for more. It's a far cry from simpler times, when celebrities were known as stars and, like stars, were sources of far-off and mysterious light that burned on and on.

"The '20s are the decade when we really started to have celebrities, because that's when a national media culture took shape," says Gerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

"The result was that news became a part of the entertainment industry. But back then there were all sorts of buffers between the public and the celebrities. Their glamour was protected by the movie studios and media companies. There weren't that many celebrities, and we didn't know that much about them."

But in an era of exploding media and reality entertainment, when 15 minutes of fame has become all but a birthright, celebrities are everywhere and we seem to know everything about them.

Need for celebrities

Thanks to a media-scape that includes cable TV and the Internet, there's a growing need for celebrities. And thanks to the reality entertainment craze, there are a growing number of instant celebrities. Not to mention making celebrities out of everyone remotely associated with the media – from models to lawyers, even to journalists.

"The quicker they rise, the quicker they fall," Mr. Porte says. "All these pseudo-celebrities, they do nothing but embarrass themselves – that's their entertainment value.

"The one thing that used to keep celebrities around for a long time was their mystique. But today, with the media's relentless drive to reveal the private lives of public figures and the public's eagerness to know every little secret, no one is special anymore."

One ironic twist in this era of disposable celebrities: Where once scandal was the kiss of death – as in 1921 for Fatty Arbuckle – it now can be a shelf-life-extending event. Following Ms. Ryder's conviction on shoplifting charges, much of the media buzz was about the boost the attention would give her career.

Within this blur of here-and-gone stories and celebrities, Mr. Jackson stands as a bridge figure between a long-gone then and a 24-hour-news now. The child star who grew into the King of Pop is an old-fashioned star – decades of heat and light went into his creation. But he is also microwave celebrity – the only time he's in the news these days is when a new scandal, such as dangling his infant over a hotel balcony, zaps him back onto tabloid covers and the entertainment blips of cable news networks.

"We need characters to populate our stories, and we use celebrities to tell our myths," says Jack Lule, author of Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism. "But we live in a disposable society where we've taken a fast-food approach to celebrities – we make them cheap and fast. And we throw them out just as quickly."

Who will be left?

As we zap our way through more and more celebrities, burning them out faster and faster, what will become of our myths? When no one is special anymore, whom will we use to tell our stories?

The answer is still celebrities.

"People are doing what advertisers have already done. They're turning to dead celebrities," says Julie Andsanger, a communications professor at Washington State University.

"Dead celebrities don't age, and they don't disappoint you. There are more and more celebrity shrines on the Web – for people like Tupac Shakur, Aaliyah, Kurt Cobain, even Andy Gibb. You keep seeing words like 'angel' and 'perfect' and 'misunderstood.' "

That's life in the media's microwave. As soon as a celebrity dies, the real myth-making can begin.



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