It is easy to explain the media obsession with Anna Nicole Smith. She was a walking sound bite, a blaring headline, a can’t miss photo-op. She posed for Playboy after dancing in obscure go-go bars in the South (after getting more than adequate breast augmentation). She married an 89-year-old billionaire. You know the rest.
She would often walk the red carpet, seeming to be either high or drunk. She was famous for being famous. But clearly Anna Nicole Smith had problems that would only get worse as we in the media documented her every move. Tragically, her 20-year-old son Daniel died in the same hospital where she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl six months ago, yet no one knows who the father is. Then last Thursday, Anna Nicole Smith died under suspicious circumstances, and the media onslaught began.
Last weekend, the coverage was wall-to-wall. Not just on tabloid TV programs but on virtually every legitimate news channel. The print press had a field day with Anna Nicole’s death, a headline writer’s dream. Celebrity-oriented Web sites crashed under the weight of public interest in the story.
I understand our fascination with famous people whose lives turn into train wrecks. Ratings go through the roof and circulation spikes. Anna Nicole’s death allows us all to escape and ponder all those intriguing questions that mean absolutely nothing to our own lives. Who is the baby’s real father? Were drugs or alcohol involved in her death? Who will get all those millions?
Anna Nicole Smith’s death at 39 is legitimate news. It’s fascinating. But does it really demand the amount of coverage it has gotten? To me it feels over the top.
In the process, what important stories get pushed out? MSNBC has tried to strike a balance between heavy coverage of Anna Nicole Smith and coverage of complex and difficult issues, including Iraq, the Scooter Libby trial and the 2008 presidential campaign.
Look, it’s a lot easier and more fun to cover celebrity-based, salacious stories than to examine sobering stuff like social security, health care, race relations or what the best approach is in getting out of Iraq. It bothers me that we in the media spend so much time, money and people power on sensational stories, while it’s a safe bet that few media consumers have any idea who the 3,000th American soldier was to die in Iraq. That’s screwed up. For the record, his name was Sgt. Edward Shaffer.
We often say “news is a business” and we have to compete for ratings. No argument. We say that because the competition is covering Anna Nicole ad nauseum, we have no choice. We say this is what people want, but what about slipping in a little of what people need?
It is easy for a media analyst to criticize the media. But that won’t do here. We need alternatives. It is a waste of time to think the dynamics that caused our obsession over Anna Nicole’s death will ever change. I suggest we remember that we have a greater responsibility than to simply cover what is easy. We should work harder to be more creative when it comes to making sense of more important stories that affect our lives. Covering real issues doesn’t have to be boring! If 40 million Americans don’t have health insurance, how can we say it isn’t worth more coverage?
Why not raise the bar just a bit? I’m not saying we should ignore Anna Nicole’s death, but show a little restraint and don’t always run with the pack. Saying that this is all people want is a cop out. Sometimes, it is all we give them, so they think that is all they can get. Of course media consumers are interested in Anna Nicole Smith, but they care about other things too, and we in the media should work harder to serve them better.
Barack Obama said in his presidential announcement that for our country to ever reach its full potential, every citizen must contribute more and be more responsible. I say, to reach our potential, we in the media must take more responsibility for what we cover and how we cover it. It is our job to better inform American citizens about what matters because democracy is not a spectator sport.
Don’t get me wrong, I get the Anna Nicole thing, and my analyzing media coverage of her death may even contribute to what I criticize. But it is what it is, and after the Anna Nicole story dies down, there will be another media obsession over a “famous person” whose outrageous behavior will fascinate us. I just hope in the process we keep a better sense of balance and perspective, and find a little more space for things that really matter in our lives.
Write to Steve Adubato at