Following the non-stop coverage of Paris Hilton’s three-week jail sentence, several networks bid huge sums for the exclusive interview with the hotel heiress for her first post-jail interview. NBC offered Hilton $1 million but withdrew when other media outlets expressed outrage over the striking sum. In the end, Larry King Live hosted her first interview. However, producers from the show clearly stipulated, “Larry King never pays for interviews,” despite viewer speculation to the contrary.
Brian Montopoli, an associate producer at the CBS News blog, Public Eye, proposed that networks such as ABC and NBC – who initially offered huge sums of money to Hilton and then withdrew because of criticism they received – should just come clean and admit to pandering for exclusive interview rights. Montopoli argued that “on this skewed scale” publications must disclose when they are paying for access. In other words, quit pretending you’re not paying — we know you are – just tell us what’s going on.
Of course, when covering a drudge piece like the incarceration of Paris Hilton, integrity inherently takes a back seat to sensationalism. But who is to blame in all of this? And is it truly just a matter of giving the people what they want? It’s no secret that in the media business, the way to make money is through greater viewership, which, in turn, leads to greater advertising revenues. So maybe it’s not the gossip hungry viewers that are the culprits but the news organizations feeding the frenzy and fishing for higher ratings.
Not only have gossip blogs like TMZ.com been caught up in the furor. Major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have devoted great resources to the Paris story, causing concern that even credible outlets have been co-opted. On the day of her dramatic return to jail, The New York Post ran a full-page advertisement, with the simple catchphrase, “We love Paris. The Darling Family”. Turns out, however, that the ad was not taken out by a private family called the Darlings. Reports later uncovered the connection between the Post’s ad and the upcoming ABC television Show “Dirty, Sexy, Money,” whose producers ingeniously used the Hilton circus to generate publicity for their new show. Such opportunistic reporting shows the lengths to which newspapers are willing to go to offer “useful” content to advertisers.
Advertisers, newspapers and television stations are certainly not the only ones who have profited from the media frenzy. Hilton herself stands to make even more money from post-jail interviews and much sought after photo-ops. But she cannot be directly held accountable for the publicity she generates. Newspapers, advertisers and, ultimately, readers are the ones who create the circus. There is also a news paradox at play here. Even when media outlets such as the Washington Post use column inches to criticize gossip reporting, they prolong the debate. In a recent online discussion with Post staff writer William Booth, one shrewd listener wrote, “Does anyone besides me find it ironic that several people in this forum are complaining about the media coverage of the ‘Paris Non-story Story’ ” he wrote. “Yet they are posting in this forum? If they truly didn’t care, wouldn’t they not be paying any attention to the story? And therefore NOT post[ing] anything?”
Though many reporters have scoffed at covering the Hilton story, all but one, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, have failed to take the most foolproof path: avoiding the story altogether. The lone reporter finally took a stand on MSNBC’s show “Morning Joe.” Brzezinski tore up a script that lead with an update on the Paris Hilton affair. As she protested, she reached into the pocket of her co-anchor, grabbed a lighter, and threatened to set the pages on fire. While original in its execution, the stagy protest may actually have had the unintended consequence of bringing more attention to the Hilton story as it quickly became one of the most popular videos on MSNBC.com’s homepage. While some questioned the spontaneity of the display, Brzezinski attested “That was all real. There was nothing planned about that, and I believe we got a little snappy.” Planned or not, she now has an entire hour to report straight news on her very own morning show.
It seems that the problem lies in a discrepancy between viewers’ tastes and the networks’ perceptions of those tastes. If audience demand and ad revenues weren’t so great, then news outlets wouldn’t use celebrity gossip as lead stories. But could it be the other way around? Could the sheer volume of these stories actually be creating the demand? “It is a pity this story got so much attention- and for what? What do we now understand that we needed to know?” Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute wrote me in an email. “How many other stories could have been covered but were not? Journalism is not just what is interesting but what is important and interesting.”
We’re suffocating in celebrities–and we need some fresh air. In order to keep frivolous stories like Paris Hilton’s from replacing more important ones–like the G.O.P.’s changing stance on Iraq, for example–viewers must demand serious news. And though soldiers in camouflage are not nearly as “hot” as a damsel in couture, networks need to uphold their responsibility to relay the most vital and pertinent stories of the day.