At times, the right and the left share a school-marmish attitude toward pop culture and the people who enjoy it. (You know, those benighted fools who make up most of the world's population.) Not surprisingly, then, liberals and conservatives alike have been falling all over themselves to chide the masses for taking an interest in the tragic story of Anna Nicole Smith. Writing in the March 19 National Review, Rob Long admits that watching the judge cry on television he thought: "What are we fighting so hard for? Let the terrorists win. They have a point." New York Times token conscience Bob Herbert recently lamented that Americans care more about Anna Nicole than about global warming or the resurgence of terrorists in North Waziristan. (He even quotes arch-scold Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death.) Over the past month, I've heard numerous similar laments.
People, get a grip.
First, what's not interesting about this story? An iconic and beautiful celebrity dies after enduring a horrendous trauma (her adult son died while she was still in the hospital after giving birth to a daughter). Everything is in question, from the cause of death to the paternity of the baby to where -- in a creepy twist -- Smith's rapidly decomposing body should be buried. Sure, it won't affect our children's futures and won't matter that much a year from now. But if you weren't -- at least briefly -- sucked into the high drama and supreme weirdness of this story, you're probably the lovechild of Theodor Adorno and Donald Wildmon.
And look how much more compelling it is than many allegedly "serious" news stories, many of which are simply pallid -- rather than tragic or titillating -- gossip. Most of the endless reports about the presidential candidates and their little tiffs and beefs with one another are, after all, about nothing more than celebrity and personality, and these don't even deliver sizzle, much less steak!
Furthermore, why should we have to choose between gossip and "real" news? We journalists are perfectly capable of following both Anna Nicole's autopsy report and Al Qaeda -- why should we assume that the rest of the public can't do the same? People spend ample time on the Internet, and watching TV. Bob Herbert intones gravely: "I imagine that there are a fair number of television viewers and newspaper readers who have trouble distinguishing the relative importance of celebrity stories, like the death of Ms. Smith, from other matters in the news, like the reconstitution of forces responsible for the devastating Sept. 11 attacks." Herbert imagines this is true, but provides no data or evidence showing that it is. I've never met any mentally functional adult (much less a "newspaper reader") who had "trouble distinguishing" between a celebrity story and a news story of longer-term social or economic significance, and I doubt that Bob Herbert has, either.
In the case of Anna Nicole, broadcasters did get carried away; for two days in February, the story took up half the airtime on CNN, Fox and MSNBC, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. But as the Associated Press reported today, the networks backed off in their coverage of Smith's Friday funeral. And guess what? You're still not going to see much in-depth coverage of North Waziristan. Or much thoughtful coverage of anything else. So let's not blame Anna Nicole for the sorry state of the U.S. media. Hasn't the lady suffered enough?