Am I the only one . . .

August 30, 2009 at 1:31 pm (By Rodjean)

. . . who doesn’t get the level of coverage of recent celebrity deaths. From Princess Diana to Anna Nicole Smith to Michael Jackson to Teddy Kennedy, it seems the media has to focus endlessly on a the most recent celebrity to die.

I understand the focus when the President is shot, but the youngest Kennedy brother was, in the immortal words of a former Texas Senator who once ran as a Democratic candidate for Vice President, “No Jack Kennedy.”

Of the four people I mentioned above, one was a nice girl who got stuck in an unhappy royal marriage. Another was a gold digger who shocked everybody by marrying for money, then got caught in a lengthy court battle over the millions she inherited. The third was a pop icon who was so strange he became an emblem of strangeness. The fourth was a guy who got into the U.S. Senate because he was the President’s brother, weathered some scandals, aspired to a leadership post in the Senate, but was ousted as Majority Whip, ran for the Democratic nomination for President and lost, then settled into a long term career in the Senate.

These musings came to the surface as my granddaughter saw her beloved Saturday Morning Cartoons preempted for live coverage of Sen. Kennedy’s funeral. It is not that his death wasn’t noteworthy, but simply he was not a great man, and the media are pretending that he was. If his death demands a week of fawning praise, what level of of adulation should we save for people who were actually accorded the top leadership positions in their party’s delegations, like Harry Reid or Bob Dole, or were nominated for the Presidency by their party and sparked a fundamental paradigm shift, like Barry Goldwater, or were actually elected President, like Jimmy Carter or George Bush, Sr.? Compared to Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton is a giant.

Compared to Anna Nicole Smith, we’re all giants.

Michael Jackson was, in his prime, a gifted entertainer. His scandals probably made his passing more noteworthy, and the manner in which he died was certainly newsworthy. I can understand why there was a lot of coverage at first, but I don’t get why the country was plunged into weeks of rehashing everything about him.


  1. Randy said,

    It seems to me that the name of the game is attracting eyeballs, and with them, advertising revenue (BWDIK?). Filling time is hard and there’s no money in filling time with anything remotely approaching a serious conversation, but circuses are fun and exciting to the masses, or so it appears, so we get circuses, and endless (and usually mindless) speculation. The only thing missing in the modern era are the lions literally devouring the hapless victims in full view.

  2. Ron said,

    The nation would be better off if Les Paul had gotten Teddy’s coverage and vice versa.

    Plus I cringe when the media talks about the Kennedys being “the closest America has to royalty.” Can we animate John Adams’ dried bones to comment on that please?

  3. Ron said,

    When Althouse goes who will post the last post? Can we give her an effigy like T. E. Lawerence?

  4. wj said,

    Amen, Ron. Although I saw something today suggesting that we could make a more recent case for the Walkers. (Intermarried with the Bushes, as time went on.)

    I think that the critical factor is that (for all that they constantly try to do without) the media really need something to talk about. And a celebrity, even an artificial one, gives them a hook for lots of stuff to fill air time with. Two indicators of how frantic they are being how far they reach to try and make someone noteworthy, and how many insignificant details they feel compelled to go over. If it wasn’t so irritating, one could almost feel sorry for them.

  5. realpc said,

    People don’t agree on who is or isn’t great. Michael Jackson was considered one of the greatest popular entertainers, whether any of us happen to like him or not. And his being strange made him that much more interesting to the public, and everyone was curious about how and why he died. So the media makes a big deal out of his death, because they want people to watch.

    Not everyone would agree with your opinion of Ted Kennedy, and some might consider him great for whatever reason. Being the brother of JFK gave him unearned fame, but if he had lived a private life his death would not be all over the news for days, in spite of being a Kennedy.

    Yes people love to worship celebrities. There is probably something in human nature that makes us feel a need for something like royalty. Our closest primate relatives live in groups with leaders. so it seems to be natural.

    The US wasn’t supposed to have powerful leaders, because the founders were trying to avoid some of the traps that human nature always falls into. But they probably knew that Americans would go on worshiping heroes and celebrities, because people always have, so they probably always will.

    The story of Anna Nicole was interesting because of the drama, I guess. And Princess Diana just appealed to the world, because of her looks and personality, her victim status, etc.

    It seems like you are expecting celebrities to be individuals who have accomplished certain kinds of things. But there are all sorts of reasons why people become famous, and I don’t see that as odd.

  6. Darcy said,

    I agree. Except for Diana – the princess of my time. I took her death very hard for a lot of reasons and it was pretty tragic. But saying that just kind of makes the point that we all have different heroes/heroines. There must be more people watching this than the media themselves….

  7. Rod said,

    Realpc has a point. I am probably thinking celebrity has something to do with doing something worth celebrating, so my A-list would be different than the media’s. By my count, on a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being a passing mention on the evening news and 10 being the Full Monty of breathless attention, the four people I listed got the following levels of attention:

    Princess Di: 10
    Michael Jackson: 10
    Teddy Kennedy: 8
    Anna Nicole Smith: 5

    Feel free to disagree with my attention rankings and make your own. Whatever your preferences, what degree of attention should the following persons, both dead and alive, merit?

    Pope John Paul II
    Mother Theresa
    George Harrison
    Margaret Thatcher
    Mikhail Gorbachev
    Philo Farnsworth
    Bill Gates
    Sam Walton
    Jimmy Carter
    Fidel Castro
    Caroline Kennedy
    Aung San Suu Kyi
    Jay Leno

  8. realpc said,

    They would all be interesting to different degrees to different people. And actually they might get different ratings from the same person on different days in different moods.

    The raving attention we devote to celebrities might also have something to do with technology and electronic media. Einstein was astounded (and maybe appalled) at the media attention he received. The Beatles noted they had surpassed Jesus in popularity.

    Before radio, records, movies, TV, etc., extreme fame wasn’t very common. There was Jesus, some great artists, poets, composers, some scientists and philosophers, theologians, etc.

    But as soon as recording technology became available, all sorts of musicians started becoming known to the whole country. The same thing happened with actors as a result of movies and then TV. Explosions of fame.

    But we don’t know how many of these celebrities will still be known in a hundred years. Imagine how many famous cult leaders were around in Jesus’ time, or how many entertainers of various kinds were celebrated in each era, and have been forgotten.

    There are many reasons for fame, and all degrees of it. Sometimes it’s because of extreme special talent or creativity, but often it isn’t.

  9. Jason (the commenter) said,

    Teddy Kennedy’s death was covered so much because for the ‘mainstream’ media he was a great man. For other people he wasn’t, which explains the low ratings.

  10. Sissy Willis said,

    I didn’t watch one minute. Was driven to considering NFL. Finally ended up just turning off the sound and keeping unwatchable Peter Sellers movies on in the background.

  11. Donna B. said,

    I gave up fandom sometime in my 20s. More exactly, it just faded away. I find it much easier to enjoy an artist’s work without knowing too much about their private lives. As for politicians… I find nothing more annoying than one who runs on “Look at me, I have a great family and I’m a [fill in the blank] and I will fight for you, etc…”

  12. amba said,

    I find it much easier to enjoy an artist’s work without knowing too much about their private lives.

    Hear hear.

    Knowing much about their private lives and personalities is a positive detriment to enjoying their work. Actors, for instance, are channeling something much bigger and more powerful than themselves. If they’re any good, they’re mediums. Their everyday personalities are just placeholders, occupying their bodies till they work again.

    I have an inverse reaction to celebrities: I find them less interesting than “ordinary people.” It’s not flattery or hype, just a fact, to say that everyone writing and commenting here is by far more interesting to me than any celebrity I can think of.

    Village and tribal gossip is certainly natural, add our Schadenfreude at witnessing the troubles and foibles of the fortunate, and you have celebs as the gossip magnets of the global village, someone you can whisper and bond with anyone over because you both “know” them, the way you and your neighbor would once both have known the rich reclusive drunk up the street. We develop our own larger-than-life celebrities in this online world, but it’s closer to the village model. e.g. Althouse and Meade. We almost actually know them; they’re “neighbors,” not icons.

    One thing that really bothers me about celebrities (apart from the blandly avid tone of the tabloid industries that promote and parasitize them, which is a big part of the problem) is the way they work at all looking alike. They work at conforming to some pretty banal ideal, so they end up losing much of their individuality and becoming interchangeable Barbie and Ken clones. (I just saw Michael Clayton again and I have to say that I do appreciate George Clooney.)

    Finally, I think the secret of wall-to-wall media coverage of celebrity death is less our fascination with celebrity than our fascination with death. Think of the cable news networks as three vultures circling. It’s what they do best. They’re just like paid professional mourners. A celebrity death just gives us a shared occasion to publicly, collectively obsess over and examine death, to count the countless morbidly fascinating ways of dying, and to rehearse for the inevitable time when we ourselves will be bereaved and terminally ill.

    I was riveted and horrified by three deaths of people I wasn’t much interested in when they were alive: Princess Diana, JFK junior, and Nicole Brown Simpson. In the cases of the first two the deaths seemed so unnecessary, avoidable and irrevocable. And both were attractive young people who weren’t entertainers. There was something poignant about Diana; and there is someone in my life she reminded me of. In JFK junior’s case I felt mostly for Caroline (whom I’m not at all interested in normally). What I mostly felt about him was anger at his stupidity.

  13. Ron said,

    I view celebrities as a kind of “psychological shorthand” for traits/skills/feelings I want in myself. The reality of them as persons…well, that’s only a larger Jungian trope, a kind of metastage for how life plays out. I could give long winded explantions of what I aspire to, but it’s easier and more human, I think, to just point and say “like that.” Perhaps Archibald Leach was a boring person in reality, but Cary Grant? “I’d like that much wit and charm and good looks thank you Cosmos!” As he himself said, he’d like to be like Cary Grant.

    Could non-celebrities be like this for us as individuals? Yes…but most people don’t hone that part of their persona that would create something that others could latch onto…I wonder to what degree this a conscious, needed effort to do so, hence “celebrities.”

    I’ll believe Althouse and Meade are celebrities when they both try to sell me a Sleep Number Bed in an infomercial.

    I will admit one of my various career goals is to dance “Cheek to Cheek” with Althouse. On You Tube. Hell, I’ll sing it to her, no problem there! I may desire to be Astaire, but I am well aware I have the dancing chops of a fireplug. But will that stop me? Hell no!

    But I digress…

  14. Ron said,

    A famous person wears the same size water skis as me,
    She has three cars,
    As many years as I’ve lived in this city,
    Her hair is blond and mine is brown,
    They both start with a “B”,
    But when the phone inside her rib cage rings it’s not for me,
    But when the phone inside her rib cage rings it’s not for me.


    — They Might Be Giants

  15. Donna B. said,

    Conformity, where celebrities are concerned, is in trying to look like each other while outdoing each other at the same time.

    I shall conform to being outrageous.

  16. Rod said,

    Kind of like the opposite – teens who all have to dress the same to express their individuality.

  17. Freeman Hunt said,

    I find it much easier to enjoy an artist’s work without knowing too much about their private lives.

    I agree. Reading a single interview with Dave Matthews, wherein he was drunk and screaming at women on the street, destroyed my enjoyment of his music. At the time, I was in college and owned all of his albums, even the obscure ones.

    As for celebrity coverage, I just don’t get it. I turn on the television, and it’s surreal. Do all the people I encounter every day care about this? When the people I see on the street go home, is this what they’re interested in? Really? I have trouble believing that people are truly so interested in celebrity and wonder if all the coverage is driven by a small population of dedicated television watchers who put in the most hours on Nielsen. Maybe they watch so much television because they find celebrity fascinating.

  18. Ron said,

    Freeman, Babe Ruth sold everything under the sun because his name was stuck on it. People had careers impersonating Charlie Chaplin.

    In 1934, Clark Gable convinced men they didn’t need undershirts in It Happened One Night, and, yes, Astaire/Rogers managed to convince Americans they needed Venetian blinds because they were in The Gay Divorcee.

    I’m trying to say celebrity worked well before TV, and yes, movies too.

  19. Rod said,

    “I find it much easier to enjoy an artist’s work without knowing too much about their private lives.”

    I think this is frequently the case. A symphony or a painting must ultimately stand on its own merit. Yet, knowing something about the artist can give usefull context, particularly with regard to works that are somewhat political. For instance, part of the marvel of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony comes from knowing the composer was going deaf.

  20. Donna B. said,

    I agree Rod, that knowing something about the artist can give context and Beethoven is a good example. It’s a salient fact, whereas what his favorite color was, isn’t.

  21. reader_iam said,

    I wonder if the reason I’m mostly immune to NOT being able to enjoy music/artists once I find out unsavory stuff about their personal lives is to due the fact that I was raised by and around performing and other artists.

    (That might also be why I mostly don’t seek out that info, either, nor do I tend toward celebrity worship or fascination.)

  22. Rod said,

    Donna: True, unless he was Picasso.

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