[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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
NEWSFILE: 1 DECEMBER 2002