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Who Has Hit Rock Bottom: Lindsay or Us?

Over the past few months Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears have provided enough scandal to give the Bush administration a run for its money. With this week’s arrest of Lindsey Lohan on DUI and cocaine possession charges, its seems that another of Hollywood’s so called “Girls Gone Wild” will face potential prison time. And since everyone loves a scandal, especially if it involves a young beautiful woman falling from grace, many “news” organizations have jumped on the story, letting it lead news segments and allowing the coverage to eclipse other issues like Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2008 Presidential race, or natural disasters. In the past few days I have observed a number of “news” programs flashing Lohan’s mugshot with titles like “Girls Gone Wild” and “Hitting Rock Bottom” and diagnosing Lohan’s legal issues as a symptom of addiction. I am not prepared to make a determination as to whether or not Lohan actually has an addiction, although I must say that substance abuse does not necessarily equal addiction and “rock bottom” means more than getting arrested for a DUI.

But the bigger issue here is the attention given toward the gossip. It’s nothing new, as this MSNBC article illustrates. An excerpt:

When the newsmedia zeroes in on the indiscretions of a larger-than-life actor, entertainer, athlete or politician, it’s often accompanied by plenty of lofty clucking about how tabloid journalism has gotten out of hand. But we’ve always had Paris, or some other eye-poppingly wayward personage like her.

The reality may be that it’s the rampant proliferation of media in the digital age — not the public’s seemingly growing hunger for the trials, tribulations and unfortunate video moments of the famous — that has magnified the amount of celebrity journalism with which we’re inundated. Where we once got our news from the old living room Philco and the nearest newsboy, most Americans are now addicted to an intravenous drip of cable news crawls, wireless headsets and the bottomless World Wide Web.

There were, to be sure, certain factors beyond a relatively compact news industry that limited the extent of celebrity coverage in the early half of the 20th century. When told of Mitchum’s arrest, Howard Hughes’s first reaction was to ask where to direct the hush money. Police, reporters, politicians and other gatekeepers of information were more prone to back-alley arrangements then than now, in our ever more transparent age.

Sportswriters and campaign reporters, it’s now well known, were disinclined to reveal the secrets of the athletes and politicians on whose livelihood they depended. The indiscretions of Babe Ruth and John F. Kennedy are just two of the best-known examples of public figures whose statuesque shoulders have been spattered by insinuation and inference since their deaths.

Many topics were taboo. Were Montgomery Clift, for instance, acting today, he almost certainly would be expected to submit to a Barbara Walters sit-down about his sexuality. William Faulkner might have been hounded into a public apology after one of his alcoholic episodes was caught on videotape, in the next suite over from David Hasselhoff’s.

Not that the newsmedia once knew only the high road. The mysterious death of starlet Virginia Rappe at a San Francisco bacchanal hosted by the silent-film comedian Fatty Arbuckle set off a national debate about Hollywood morals — even as editors and readers alike obsessed over the sordid details.

The article, written by James Sullivan, makes some important points, that there is a strange love-hate relationship between the consumers, the media, and troubled starlets. It strikes me as a sublimated misogyny. The culture loves its beauties but it also loves to see them corrupted and ultimately destroyed. It is a symptom of sexual repression, in that we look on and lust after the bodies and lifestyles of the Lindsays and the Britneys but in order to reconcile that lust with our guilt, we relish in the degradation and punishment of the starlet. And if, by some chance, she is able to turn it around and be redeemed, that gives us a chance to now hold her up as a Madonna-figure (think Christianity, not the singer). But either way, our obsession with the corruption of women is troubling.

In recent months, I have begun to include a five minute news segment in the weekly episodes of Maverick at the Movies and I made a conscience decision to exclude celebrity gossip, partially for this reason. I believe that this obsession with gossip has polluted the discussion of film in the mass media to the point that the evaluation of film has been tainted by what celebrities are alleged to have done in the tabloids. The show has attempted to be a antidote for this and I hope that listeners can appreciate the effort.

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