Flashback: Media Celebrity

In anticipation of the shutdown of Apple’s MobileMe service, I am re-posting some of my old blog entries before they become harder to retrieve.

This entry was originally posted on June 17, 2005.

Next month, the sixth of seven Harry Potter books will be published. For those who don’t know about the books, it’s the story of a boy wizard and his travails in a school for wizardry. One of the ongoing jokes of the books, is that every year there a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Through the five books, he has had three teachers who didn’t teach much of anything, and two who were somewhat effective.

One of his ineffective teachers — the one from his second year in the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — is a celebrity in the wizarding world, named Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart essentially stole other wizards’ stories and used his charisma to achieve celebrity. It wasn’t much of a surprise when we learned that he didn’t know how to do some of the things he had written about.

There is one scene in the book, where Lockhart advises Harry, “celebrity is as celebrity does.”

No, I don’t understand what that means either. But then again, I haven’t achieved the level of celebrity that I would like.

That said, in today’s media-saturated world, it’s far too easy to become a celebrity. For some reason that I can’t determine, the media seem to love turning ordinary people who don’t do anything all that outrageous, into celebrities. Oftentimes, they are either accused of, or the victim of some crime. Like it or not, murder, kidnapping, and rape happen all of the time. When it happens among the wealthy and attractive, for some reason, the news media seem to think we should care, even when it didn’t happen locally.

The following is a list of people whose names we know, thanks to the news media. And I am generally of the opinion that there is no reason why we should know their names unless we happen to live somewhere close by.

Scott Peterson and his wife Laci.
Charles Stuart
Elizabeth Smart
JonBenet Ramsey
Susan Smith
Jennifer Wilbanks
Megan Kanka
Terri Schiavo, her husband Michael, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler

Those last two points are names of people who are local to me, so I would know them anyway. The reality remains that I don’t understand why people in Iowa, for instance, should know who they were.

There are three names in the news right now that I’m kind of on the fence about whether they legitimately qualify for their celebrity. First are the father and son John Allen Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo, convicted of being the snipers that terrorized the Washington, DC area a few years ago. Hiding in a car and shooting people at random because they just happen to be there is somewhat different of a crime from killing someone you know / are related to / are married to / you’ve had an affair with. Also, you can make the argument that theirs was the first real news event in this country since September 11, 2001.

The other name is Natallee Holloway. A teenager who disappeared while on a high school vacation in Aruba doesn’t happen as often as others. I might change my opinion once we have a better feel for what happened to her. The media are still overplaying her story, but I wouldn’t fault them for playing it. Not right now.

I can understand taking an interest in criminal trials involving a celebrity, but not becoming a celebrity by virtue of your involvement in a criminal trial. Kobe Bryant, Robert Blake, Phil Spector, and Michael Jackson’s trials made (and will make in the case of Spector) for good copy because they are famous for doing other things.

I suppose this is not a new phenomenon. I suspect that it began back in the 1960’s, where there are a lot of people whose names became well-known by virtue of their involvement in strange or unusual crimes (usually as victims). But they were strange and unusual. Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were killed because they tried to bring civil rights to Mississippi. Watching the media circus that’s going on right now as the trial of someone accused in their killing 41 years ago makes me wonder how much of a circus surrounded their original deaths. Kitty Genovese is famous for having been murdered in front of a bunch of people who just stood there watching, with nobody trying to help. These crimes are a bit more outrageous than a husband killing his wife, or a teenager being kidnapped, but that their names are still known 4 decades later probably is quite telling.

My challenge to the news media? How about airing something that matters to us.

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