Celebrity faces are an ever-present reality today. American television programs, supermarket check-out lines, newsstands, cubicle desks, and middle school book bags are full of them: the bright, shiny faces that show the American people how to dress, eat, not eat, dine, dance, walk; the latest gossip about who is kissing who, who has broken up, and who is the Next Hot Thing. Holly wood has become America's living, breathing soap-opera, and instead of being tucked away in the afternoon hours between the midday and evening news, they have become the news. Journalists bow to them, filling their court rooms with microphones, cameras, and live updates whenever they do something wrong, and camp outside whatever happy event is celebrated when they do something right. Celebrity culture has become so mass-produced in the American media that it has overpowered news-based coverage. This market saturation is capable because of how we communicate, and it is changing what we communicate about on all levels.
Typical of the intellectual elite, media critics from all publications are the fast nay-sayers of the celebrity market trend. What Andy Warhol called the inevitable "fifteen minutes of fame" has now been replaced by a seemingly interminable string of celebrity updates. (Altman, Howard. Celebrity Culture. CQ Researcerh v. 15-11. March, 2005. Pg. 247.) What they call "celebrity worship," is taking America by storm, affecting not only the news that people in take, but how they process it back into their lives. The story of one young girl, who said she emotionally connected with Marilyn Manson, highlights the symbiotic association between the audience and the star at its most extreme. Houran, a noted media critic, recalled the experience of the girl who, when learning that her punk hero was getting married, said she wanted to be the "one to change him." To do so, "She cut her arms, neck and legs," Houran said. "She was rushed to the hospital. She wanted to be the one to change him. When she realized her obsession, saying 'I just want him to be happy. If he is happy, I am happy. He is the only person I connect with." (p. 250.) The worst fears of the worried critics were realized; possibly, this extreme obsession with the celebrity not only creates an incredulous belief of connection between one soul (the audience) and another (the star), it mars the lines of fabrication that exist in presenting the press-released version of the celebrity.
While this psychological debate is grounded in extreme cases, like the story of Houran and the girl, it goes without saying that the child was experiencing severe mental psychoses of her own that while media have furthered, journalism certainly did not cause. It seems, however, that the dearth in news-reporting as it gets consolidated into celebrity update, may be responsible for an important degradation of the American system of democracy. A key component of a functioning democracy is an active free press, responsible for informing the public of all the critical events for the validity of their decision making by serving as an integral government watchdog. It is that tenuous state of relationship that critics, journalists themselves, market as the failing of the celebrity obsession of the American public.
The journalists Altman quotes repeatedly in his near-expose of the celebrity culture invading the news stands and American conscious blame media magnates, corporations for the steady demand by the public for the starry-gossip "news." While they align the possible effects with a failing democracy, a misinformed American psyche, and possibly drastic consequences in its interpretation by the audience, they do two explicitly suspicious things. First, these journalists still work for their news sources; while celebrity culture may not be their own sentimental choice of work, it is still what pays their bills. Secondly, their debate is immediately put into question: where does the blame lay?
As the journalists, "media critics," all attribute the blame to the large, umbrella corporations, the truth that the capitalist market place so alive in American democracy is too easy a source for a pointed finger. While they fault the media for its attention to the gossip worship and Hollywood idolatry, when does the consumer become responsible? Media, like any other industry, willing puts itself at the mercy of the consumer; they produce what the consumer wants, as it, too, is a money making business. (Graber, Doris A. Mass Media and American Politics. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002., p. 27.) While they are certainly to blame for ignoring the responsibility demanded by responsible journalism to present the facts to the best of their abilities to further the knowledge of the public of the affairs they ought to know, the public is then, too, to blame for fiscally expressing an infatuation larger with Paris Hilton and Brad Pitt than the nuclear capabilities of South Korea.
If, in the corollary between a functioning democracy, a free and responsible media, and informed public, any one group is most at fault for the slipping coverage of international and political news for the sake of celebrity fluff, it is the public. The public may, in doing so, actually express not only an interest in celebrity, but perhaps a disinterest in being informed. Catch-22; If the public is responsible too, then, why does it not wish to stay informed? Why does it spend more money on the supermarket tabloids than on subscriptions to Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal?
Years of international dominance, control of not on the United Nations but a variety of other multi-national commercial extensions of the American success have allowed for Americans to become fat. Not only is this evidenced in the current struggles with obesity as briefed in Altman's work, it is also clear in the commercial choices made by the millions of American consumers every day. In showing a more devout interest in the lives of celebrities instead of international affairs, the American public reveals itself as clearly very secure and comfortable in the world, even in the post 9/11 environment.
Part of this comfort is provided and secured by the press, it is also the result of how all aspects of the American community have become a series of public relations efforts. Even, as of late, the White House has been critiqued for its use of the press room to not just report facts as they happen, but to actually spin them in pre-taped video releases in such a way that they become not the news itself, but instead the story. Hollywood manufactures the same image (or is it vice-versa), and by purchasing celebrity gossip, not only does the science behind a familiar face fuel a good feeling in a body, but the ultimate good-feeling is achieved: security. By ignoring the threat of South Korea's nuclear capabilities and instead lamenting the Cruise-Kidman divorce, Americans can turn a blind eye to the world at large and the current state of mass confusion.
The Battle for Baghdad, Altman said, has been overwhelmed by the Battle for Networks. If the American media is just another marketplace, and the consumer is heard, then perhaps the consumer is choosing something other than the Baghdad discussion for a reason. Regardless of the cause -- be it stimulation to the amygdala, fascination with the rich and famous, or the awesome power of fame -- the results remain the same. Does celebrity coverage lead to poorer coverage of "real issues"? Is this coverage bad for American society, Altman asks.
Ultimatley, no, it is not. The public fascination with the media's coverage of celebrity lifestyles itself is not responsible for the degradation of the informed public that promotes a functioning democracy, but is instead representative of it. In today's changing frames of communication, though, the media has not just been tripped up by celebrity coverage,…