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New Focus on Celebrity Impacts Mainstream Journalism

Critics say the news media are becoming obsessed with celebrity, probing the lives of the rich and famous and reveling in their scandals. Scholars and journalists recently met in Los Angeles to discuss the phenomenon and VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports some worry about what it suggests for the future of journalism.

When pop star Michael Jackson was arraigned last month on charges of child molestation, the world media were there to describe his every movement. Basketball star Kobe Bryant is undergoing similar scrutiny as he faces a charge of sexual assault in Colorado.

And California politics generated some unexpected frenzy as action star Arnold Schwarzenegger joined, and then won, the governor's race last year. For many editors, the story was more about his personal behavior than California's future, as news outlets probed the actor's past to search out allegations of sexual misconduct.

Is this hard-hitting reporting, or voyeurism? That question was posed to a panel of specialists hosted by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, and the Poynter Institute of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Jay Harris of USC is a former tabloid editor who says editors know celebrity sells newspapers.

"Celebrity coverage is smart business, just in terms of the growth of the business, and that there are competitive pressures," he explained. "Everybody knows that if we don't do it, our competitor might, and we may lose some advantage."

The focus on celebrity is shaping mainstream journalism, says Sue Cross of the Associated Press news service. She routinely receives story requests from around the world.

"It has made a difference in what we end up pursuing," she said. "Things will appear on cable stations or be heard on the radio, and sometimes be seen online, that we will end up checking out if they're true or not. And they may be reported as rumor. I'm not sure those would have been reported to a mass audience five or 10 years ago."

Peggy Jo Abraham of the E! Entertainment Network describes herself a serious journalist who reports celebrity news on television. As her network's news director, she says she demands confirmation of every story, but says other celebrity outlets are less careful.

"Everyone will say, OK, we couldn't confirm it, so we'll just say that according to the Star [newspaper] or according to E! or according to Entertainment Tonight, this is what's going on. But it's all just a big circle. They didn't confirm it either, but now we're quoting them," she said.

Columnist Robert Scheer says newspapers are less obsessed with celebrity than are other media, but says magazines may be among the worst offenders. Magazines routinely highlight celebrities to boost sales.

He has worked for both kinds of publications, and recalls a profile of actor Paul Newman that he wrote for Esquire magazine. The film star is active in many social causes, and three weeks of interviews focused on Mr. Newman's opposition to nuclear weapons. The writer says little of what he wrote on the subject appeared in the edited story.

"And the cover line on Esquire, which was then considered a very respectable magazine, was "Confessions of a Lousy Lover" because in a moment of honesty, Newman said, 'Hey, I'm not the guy on the screen. I'm not the world's best pool player, I'm not this or that, and I'm not the world's greatest lover.' They pulled that out. So the whole thing was an exercise in distortion," he explained.

Editors often say they choose what themes to highlight based on reader interest, that is, based on the editor's judgment about what is newsworthy.

Dan Rosenheim, a television news director from San Francisco, says editors are unwise to ignore the interests of their audience, especially in the competitive field of broadcasting.

Former editor Jay Harris says the judgment of news executives is shifting today, and the results are good and bad.

"We carry useful information, including information on changing values, priorities, and shared challenges, but we also carry, or maybe spread is the better word, given the subject, that which weakens, that which corrodes, and that which debases," he said.

USC English professor Leo Braudy says celebrity journalism is not entirely new. Editors in the past sometimes traded in rumor and celebrated the lives of the rich and famous. But he says sensational stories that once ran only in the tabloids now appear in the major media, based on the rationale that the story is being reported, and that alone makes it worthy of coverage.