Over the Top, and Then Some

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Anyone who isn't living under a rock and who is reasonably conversant with current events can't have helped noticing that Anna Nicole Smith is dead, that Britney Spears has gone wack-a-doodle, that Jennifer Hudson muscled her way to an Oscar and that an American Idol contestant may have had a wardrobe malfunction in front of a camera.

We know all this whether we like it or not.

We know it because television won't let us forget it, because certain on-air personalities (I hesitate to call them journalists) will not let go of these topics, regardless of whether they actually have anything new to report.

Yes, yes, of course, Penelope Cruz looked lovely at the Oscars. So did Rachel Weisz. And any of us with eyes in our heads would rather look at them than at the shiny scalp that now adorns Britney Spears, or at the vacuous, grotesque figure that Anna Nicole Smith became in her reality-show days, an image that we've now seen endlessly in our worst dreams.

But isn't it all overkill?

Craig Ferguson, host of CBS's Late Late Show, announced last week that he had decided not to make fun of Britney Spears. Ferguson, who long ago had his own alcohol problems, called her one of the "vulnerable."

And NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams announced on his blog that he would have no stories about Britney's troubles or the court hearing over where to bury Anna Nicole.

Yet that decision surprised media critic Eric Deggans, who wrote in today's St. Petersburg Times that "there is real news embedded in these ongoing soap operas." "In Spears' case," he wrote, "we have one of the world's best-known pop singers melting down before the public's eye..."

Smith, a "professional train wreck... left an estate potentially worth $400 million to a 5-month-old daughter who at least three men claim to have fathered," Deggans wrote.

"On what planet isn't this news?"

Maybe we just don't want to talk about war any more.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism said the Smith story was the number-one subject on cable for a week, and that it consumed half of news airtime in the first two days after her death.

In the Charlotte Observer today, Walker Lundy wrote that "TV went dead-on nuts" over the Anna Nicole story.

"If George W. Bush had been found naked and unconscious in the bed next to her, the poor woman would not have received more TV airtime." Lundy, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote that TV's "over-coverage would be amusing, except many Americans lump television and newspapers together as ‘the media' when they offer criticism. Unfortunately, when TV news looks stupid, the rest of the media look stupid by association."

The editor of the Albany Times-Union, Rex Smith, addressed his Saturday column to those "tut-tutting about 'the media' overdoing coverage" of Britney and Anna Nicole: "I must politely insist," he wrote, "that you stop lumping us in with cable news channels and tabloids."

Most newspapers across the country, he said, have not overplayed those stories.

"You may grumble that nobody should have paid so much attention… in the first place, a defensible view only if you want the news media to be disconnected from reality…"

Still, Smith said, he's had enough: "Take both stories away from us, please. I'm not putting them on the front page of this paper…"

Gawker.com reported that, at the Columbia Spectator 's annual Blue Pencil Lecture on Saturday, U.S. Weekly editor Janice Min told the crowd there's no limit "to what certain celebrities will do, or what an audience will watch."

In these times, she said, "It's okay to avert our eyes to the disaster in Iraq and look at the disaster that is Britney Spears."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan