Keeping Tabs on the News

I admit it: I'm a news junkie. My day begins with a half-hour of flipping from CNN to local news and back. Next, I crank up the shower radio for more news, most of which I've already heard. On the drive home, it's All Things Considered, then, while making dinner, it's Fresh Air. News websites are bookmarked on every computer I use, and I visit those sites obsessively during my waking hours.

But here's my guilty little secret: I also read stupid celebrity gossip mags and websites as well. Week after week, I furtively make my way to the drugstore cash registers to buy the glossy tabs screaming in 72-point type that someone in Hollywood has an EATING DISORDER! is getting MARRIED! or DIVORCED! or jaunting off to REHAB!

Yes, it's embarrassing to enjoy this fluff as much as I do, but working in media, where I'm expected to keep up with news of the world, it's easy to justify reading about the goings on in both Sadr City and Sin City. But when every other news story on CNN or other 24-hour stations is about celebrity scandal or silly feuds between actresses, have we gone too far in our quest to know it all?

You'd think I'd look at the phenomenon as the most enticing merger since Reese's created its cups, but I don't. While I want to know about both the serious and the silly, I don't want them at the same time, from the same place. Seeing a segment on Britney shaving her head immediately after a story on captured British marines makes me cringe. It implies that the two are of equal importance, when nothing could be further from the truth.

The trend certainly didn't begin with Anna Nicole Smith, but gossip-as-news reached a fever pitch with her death. Not having the facts about what caused Smith's demise or who fathered her baby couldn't stop the reporting. No news, apparently, is still news, and the endless coverage further blurred the line between news and speculation – a market formerly cornered by Nancy Grace. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, it was all Anna, all the time.

But there's another issue at hand, and it took a news magazine to bring it to my attention. In February, an issue of Newsweek hit my mailbox with Paris and Britney on the cover, with the headline "Girls Gone Wild: What Are Celebs Teaching Kids?"

My initial reaction was annoyance. It seemed like a ploy to boost newsstand sales with more seductive fodder than the suits normally peering out from its pages. But then I read the accompanying article, and had to agree. Of course being inundated with this sort of celebrity behavior affects kids. Was I not flinging myself dangerously about in the front yard and gobbling Wheaties back in the '80s in a desperate attempt to emulate my childhood idol, Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton? It's what kids do. These modern-day Mary Lous are making anorexia, sex tapes, and weekend-long marriages seem normal. But whose fault is that? Their every move is recorded and sent out over the airwaves and the Internet like legitimate news. If the news media aren't making the distinction between real news — say, the first female speaker of the house — and celebs behaving badly, how are kids supposed to?

I'm certainly not condemning all stars to the trash bin — our cover girl this month is a shining example of a celeb that I wouldn't mind my future offspring admiring. But for that reason, you won't find the likes of Ginnifer Goodwin on the cover of the tabs, where scandal and dirty deeds translate into newsstand gold. The worse the behavior, the more coverage it gets.

But if we must cover it, keep that coverage where it belongs — off the news channels and the front page of newspapers, and back on entertainment shows and in the tabs. Until then, all we can hope is that the Brit Pack behaves long enough for us to make it through the last round of Anna Nicole "news" with our sanity intact. 

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