end of world part I…

In cleavage, waste on 02/11/2007 at 10:18 pm

Who knew? This is the way the world ends — neither with a bang nor a whimper but with cleavage.

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.

Timothy Rutten
LA Times 2/10/07

  1. Did I read this right?? “,,,Anna Nicole Smith would not have died in vain…”??? So now she’s one step away from Martyrdom?!!! This is unbelievable. Look who’s calling the kettle black…

  2. Oh boy, between George W Bush and Anna Nicole Smith lies the vast intellect of Western Civilization, the last bation of Free Speech and Democracy. God help us all.

  3. Wow, I donno about end of the world but her cleavage new meaning to the phrase Silicon Valley doesn’t it… but alas no more 😦

  4. The end of the world?? None too soon… Not to digress, but speaking of silicone, I believe they (the morticians) have to remove the umm..falsies prior to embalming her body. Gruesome thought…

  5. This is all about men’s stupid folly and a golddigger’s tragic end. No reason to make headlines except it has all the trappings of the American Dream fallen apart. How long before it becomes the movie of the week, starring say..Jessica Simpson as Annna?

  6. I don’t necessarily believe she was a ‘gold-digger’, she just made decisions to try to have the best possible life for herself. What is wrong with that? Plenty of girls I know would do exactly same things if they had her ‘looks’.

  7. Excellent article–thanks for posting it. (Personally, I always felt sorry for Anna Nicole, and angry at the people around her for feeding off the circus that was her.)

  8. Would it be safe to say those so called ‘looks’ overrides concept of ‘brains’ and ‘ethics’..?

  9. Look, give the chick a break. Her husband dies too old at 86, her son dies too young at 20, her reputation is is tatters, now she’s famous but only because she’s dead. Jesus how much can a girl take?!!

  10. it’s all very odd, either too many drugs going around or a deep conspiracy. The death of her son is the most sadenning. And a baby girl with no mom.

  11. C’mon people, why are we even considering any part of this? You want tragedy, every day thousands of children are left orphaned in Sudan, Angola and refugee camps all over this planet.. and we are talking about some air head who coked to death on her vomit. Oh please… let’s save our sympathies for those truly deserving.

  12. Holy shit I LOVE this shit and let’s face it all of youse do too!! Here’s the latest, this time from her bodyguard, potential dad #9 “…He claims to be Anna Nicole’s secret lover, and now, a heartbroken Alexander Denk drops a bombshell about Baby Dannielynn’s real father and Anna’s secret medical condition that may have caused her death…” This just PROVES all guys are SHIT except, of course, my studbud Jesse Palmer.

  13. Hulla American, WE LOVE ANNA! OOPSorry. WE LOVED ANNA!!

  14. End of the world PartI? No, thank you I think I will wait for the Part II 🙂

  15. ..And all this just when I thought it was safe to come out. I second your thoughts there Sweets. Part2’s got to be better.

  16. Hey people, are we talking about the END of the World here?? What difference does Parts 1 or 2 make?:))

  17. If part 1 is cleavage then I definitely don’t want to get to part 2 🙂
    It might be better but ut may also be far worse. Also I need a couple more years.

  18. Not to flog a dead horse (oops) but here’s Dad number 11 (I lost count after nine!);
    “The daily drama over who may be the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby Dannielynn continues to grow. A new possible father for the baby seems to come forward every hour. Now there is news of another former flame of Smith coming forward. News had come out that the man convicted for stalking Anna Nicole Smith and beating up her next door neighbor may be the father of her baby.

  19. The Original Paternity claim!!

    I would laugh if it weren’t so tragic. I mean it looks like poor Anna had Men issues…

  20. May be better if Howard kept the whole thing.

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