John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Who cares about Ashton Kutcher?

Not to pick particularly on Mr. Kutcher, who portrayed a dolt on a television series and later became the incumbent husband of Demi Moore, but he appears to be representative of that group of people we call celebrities, whose activities are followed avidly by the news media. They draw legions of followers on Twitter, and yet their appeal remains obscure.

The appetite for this sort of thing used to be sated by supermarket tabloids and People, but now Baltimoresun.com has a “Celebrity News” category on its main page, and CNN.com goes in for such breathless bulletins as “Britney Spears dating her agent.” (Media commentator Steve Yelvington tweeted today: “CNN Headline News has devolved into a video National Enquirer. Beware: The next level is alien abductions.”) One of my dearest former colleagues is responsible for editing celebrity coverage at a publication that I think I will not name. This cannot be wholesome.

Please, please do not think that I am scorning gossip. Gossip, which I think an anthropologist would attest is virtually universal in human societies, serves an invaluable function in establishing and solidifying communal values, all the while brightening our drab, dreary, featureless, forgettable little lives. My mother, the late Marian Early McIntyre, for a quarter-century the postmaster of Elizaville, Kentucky, spent a goodly portion of the workday monitoring the comings and goings of the citizenry and reporting on her findings. And in large organizations, such as newspapers, run by managers comically incapable of communicating effectively, gossip is just about the only means to find out what is going on.

Moreover, when we’re able to talk about a governor of New York carrying on in extravagant assignations with hookers, or the governor of New Jersey conducting a homosexual liaison with a subordinate, we can witness a wholesome leveling-down of the great and the mighty.

But Angelina and Brad and Jen?* Paris Hilton? The aforementioned Mr. Kutcher? It cannot say something very pleasant to contemplate about ourselves that we should devote so much attention to figures of such slender substance. We lack the gossip worthy of a great nation.



*Actually, Angelina Jolie, whatever her manifold personal eccentricities, is an actress of some power, and Brad Pitt has had some agreeable roles. But I have never fathomed the appeal of Jennifer Aniston, who came to notice in a TV series that a friend described one night at dinner as “you know, that show with half a dozen people living together, with each one dumber than the last.”

9 comments:

  1. It says, doesn't it, that we all need our fantasies and as fantasies go, Ashton Kutcher's life seems a helluva lot more fun than, say, Paul Krugman's.

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  2. "And in large organizations, such as newspapers, run by managers comically incapable of communicating effectively, gossip is just about the only means to find out what is going on."

    well said!

    --LH

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  3. John: I agree that gossip is essential to the East African Plains Ape and that it comes in varying qualities. Says Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam: "I would argue that James Boswell's Life of Johnson is the most wonderful gossip in the English language, because you learn little, true details about a great man."

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  4. As much as many of us would agree with you that the takeover of news (or "news") by celebrity coverage is unwholesome, it's difficult to imagine how this might change. It's safe to say, I think, that railing against it has no effect. :-) It is, it seems, where the money is ...

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  5. I agree that railing against this deluge of celebrity coverage will not stop it, but people could at least have the common decency to be ashamed of reading it.

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  6. Jennifer Aniston, father. One N. Now, mind you, I can't name all the capitals of the world, or even spell them all, but I know how to spell Jen's last name. That's pretty sad.

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  7. Thank you, John.

    Yes, Bucky, we all need our fantasies. But fantasy, by definition, is not factual information. What do we know of Ashton Kucher's life, really? Why do we think that the so-called "news" related to celebrity is fact? Celebrity coverage (much better term than news) is usually only loosely based on anything resembling fact. It is often malicious and it often appeals to our baser interests.

    If the drive is to provide fantasy, then let's call it that and stop pretending there's anything factual about it.

    Like John, I believe gossip has it's place in society. Sometimes gossip is simply curiosity or even concern that goes too far. And sometimes gossip is the great leveller. But real gossip is always based at least in part on actual knowledge. How much do you or I really know about what goes on in Ashton Kucher's life? How much do most of the writers know?

    Here's what I think is the least decent part of the whole issue: when we get caught up in celebrity coverage, we forget that the subjects of the coverage are real people, with real families who are often really hurt by fantasy writers calling what they write "news." And in a decent society it is not enough to shrug and say, "whatta ya gonna do...it sells papers..."

    Rail away, John. Rail away.

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  8. One last thought...there's money in child pornography, but most decent news organizations avoid it.

    Hmmm...this one really hits a nerve for me...

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  9. Patricia the TerseJune 13, 2009 at 1:47 AM

    Miss Jolie - unimaginably John Voight's daughter - can't act her way from A to B. She has had some success playing comic book characters, in which she seems at ease swinging from trapezes, burrowing in caves, brandishing ancient sharp weapons and scooping up treasure. Off camera, she seems adept at scooping up children.

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