Weekend deaths remind us that living in a celebrity culture means never having to think.

Let’s pretend that we’re the gods and goddesses of media coverage and we’re faced with the dilemma of deciding how much time and space to spend reporting on the deaths of two prominent people.  We know in advance that we will assign 5,715 Internet stories to the more significant death and 728 to the less significant one. 

It just so happens that one of candidates for major media coverage is male, the other female, which makes it easier to conceal their names until we complete the comparison of credentials: 

  • He led an organization of 2 million, which serves as the primary security force for another 300+ million.  She sold 1 million pop records and performed in front of maybe 1 million people.
  • He implemented a major but flawed policy change that gave gays greater career opportunities through a compromise and then repudiated the policy as too conservative a response to social change and the imperatives of equal rights.  She renewed a pop music style to make it one of the numerous musical genres that fragmented popular music in the first decade of the 21st century.
  • He was a role model for everyone—a refugee who rose in the ranks of the military of his adopted land.  She served as a negative role model through her self-destructive drug and alcohol abuse.
  • He was one of the most influential people in the world by virtue of having led the downsizing of military spending that with increases in federal taxes fueled the real economic growth of the Clinton years.  She had a wonderful singing voice.

Many of you have already guessed that he is General John Shalikashvili, who succeeded General Colin Powell as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs and served from 1993 until 1997 under President Clinton.  And I think many of you know that she is Amy Winehouse, who by dying at the age of 27 has joined the necrophilic’s pantheon of self-destructive pop stars such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.

Even after writing for more than two decades about how celebrity culture makes us stupid, I am nevertheless shocked by the results of comparing the Internet coverage of these two deaths: 5,715 stories for the death of Amy Winehouse and a mere 728 for General Shalikashvili.  That’s almost 8 times more stories for Winehouse.  We’re not talking Michael Jackson, who had hits in three (or was it four?) decades. 

We would be wrong to blame the Internet for the celebrity mentality that proposes that as a society we should spend more time talking about the lessons to be learned from the life and death of a maybe-not-minor-but-certainly-not-major pop singer than of one of the most important peacetime generals in U.S. history.  The Internet merely reflects all the news media and in fact most Internet news sites have print or broadcast affiliates or borrow most of their news stories from print or broadcast news-gathering operations. It’s just easier to count Internet placements, thanks to advanced search engine technology.

If it’s not the Internet, then, why does the mass media encourage us to engage in celebrity-driven, consumption-focused and history-deficient intellectual lives? 

The answer comes, as is often the case, by following the money.  A very small number of large companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s multinational corporation (and Gannett, Bertelsmann, Clear Channel and a few others) control most of the daily newspapers, radio and television stations and Internet news-gatherers.  A very small number of people sit on the boards of directors of these organizations. 

These media titans may not make every individual decision that leads to the death of a Winehouse assuming greater significance than the death of a Shalikashvili.  But they set the policies that lead to a focus on celebrity culture as opposed to a focus on politics, economics, war and peace, social equity, civil rights and the other long-term issues that shape our lives.  These very wealthy and influential people want to keep the American people dumb and focused on consumption. 

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