THIS column is either part of the problem or a thought on its solution. We comment; you decide. The late Murray Kempton once described editorial writers as “the people who come down from the hill after the battle to shoot the wounded.” Nowadays, media analysts are the guys who follow behind them, going through the pockets of the dead looking for loose change.
So, yes, this column is about Anna Nicole Smith.
Friday morning, less than 24 hours after she died in a Florida hotel room, the Drudge Report — our media culture’s digital arbiter of all things tacky and prurient — had 12 items posted on the onetime topless dancer. That would account for some of the media frenzy surrounding her death. It’s a little-known fact, but certain sectors of the broadcast media have long believed that if a dozen items on Anna Nicole Smith ever were posted on Drudge simultaneously, it would herald the onset of the apocalypse.
Who knew? This is the way the world ends — neither with a bang nor a whimper but with cleavage.
Of course, one of the cheapest journalistic tricks going is to get a piece of a mindless, tawdry media frenzy by denouncing it. The writer gets to wallow profitably in whatever gutter has everybody’s attention while still being wry and high-minded. The readers get to join the fun without losing their self-respect. It’s a win-win sort of arrangement for a certain knowing-wink-and-sly-nod wing of the media culture.
And yet…. When a story takes on the sheer scope and intensity of the Anna Nicole Smith frenzy there’s something willful in the unexamined impulse to look away. Plain curiosity is an essential ingredient of the journalistic enterprise, and those who deny its operation in the interest of some higher value usually are not entirely to be trusted.
In the case of the unfortunate Smith, there was something almost touchingly retro about her wretched train wreck of a life. She wasn’t, in fact, celebrated just for being a celebrity, as is the current mode. She’d earned her notoriety the old-fashioned way: She took her clothes off for it, then married rich — though like so much else in her ambit, that apparently didn’t turn out very well. Americans have a hard time abiding a tale of struggle without reward, or a story without a happy ending, which is why we so often confer a disproportionate posthumous attention on the plucky but dubious dead. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a reflection of either our collective good-heartedness or our common sappiness. Maybe the ultimate guarantor of the former is our unwillingness to worry too much about the latter.
Those slightly melancholic reflections aside, the broad media response to Smith’s end bears some separate consideration. Clearly, public interest in her death was intense. Several celebrity-oriented websites crashed because so many people attempted to read about her. Mainstream news organizations, like this one, had page after page of reader comments about her posted to their online sites. Thursday night, the cable news and entertainment channels were, as we’ve come to expect, wall-to-wall Anna Nicole Smith.
What was different here was the way in which she made the leap from tabloid covers to the front pages of ostensibly serious newspapers.
The mainstream journalistic coverage of Smith’s death is among the first such stories driven, in large part, by an editorial perception of public interest derived mainly from Internet traffic. Throughout the afternoon Thursday, editors across the country watched the number of “hits” recorded for online items about Smith’s death. These days, it’s the rare newspaper whose meeting to discuss the content of the next day’s edition doesn’t include a recitation of the most popular stories on the paper’s website. It’s a safe bet that those numbers helped shove Anna Nicole Smith onto a lot of front pages.
What makes this of more than passing interest is that serious American journalism is in the process of transforming itself into a new, hybrid news medium that combines traditional print and broadcast with a more purposefully articulated online presence. One of the latter’s most seductive attributes is its ability to gauge readers’ appetites for a particular story on a minute-to-minute basis. What you get is something like the familiar television ratings — though constantly updated, if you choose to treat them that way.
There’s no point belaboring what the ratings preoccupation has done to broadcast news, particularly the once-promising 24-hour cable news channels. Today, their prime-time slots all are dominated by clones of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly because his show draws the medium’s biggest nightly audience. Even MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann simply is an anti-O’Reilly. Nothing more complicated about his shtick, whatever his bosses make of it. Life is short, so let’s not talk about CNN Headline’s Nancy Grace or Glenn Beck.
The point is that the transformation of cable television news into a snarling verbal food fight with a scant informational component happened because the people running it decided to let the numbers run them.
Television ratings or aggregated “hits” on newspaper websites constitute useful marketing information. When they’re transmuted into editorial tools, what you get is a kind of faux-empiricism that can create a false but nearly irresistible authority. It’s that most misleading of commodities, information without context. It is data, but not necessarily information, that you can use because you understand the data. In the case of these accumulations of online hits, it is hard to know what you’re measuring beyond a 24-hour fad or the inclinations of obsessive people with too much time on their hands.
Standing on the cusp of this inevitable transformation, it’s a good moment for American newspapers to take a reflective breath to consider just how they want to play this numbers game — or, more important, whether they want to play it at all.
If that were to occur, then Anna Nicole Smith would not have died in vain.
LA Times 2/10/07