The recent deaths of two well-known actors, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, dominated the news media this week, but in very predictable ways. The news media has got celebrating the life of a famous person down to a science. If the feeding frenzy on the dead bones of a troubled comic or a classy New York personality has been so thorough, it’s only because the media has done it many, many times before.
No reporter assigned to write a story about a celebrity death should have to scratch his or her head in frustration or confusion, wondering where to begin. There are so many models from which to select that most of the stories about dead celebrities seem to write themselves. Besides the basic obituary of the star, the media churns out story after story on the following topics:
- Analysis and appreciations of the celebrity’s body of work
- Reaction of the public
- Reaction of the star’s family
- Reaction of other celebrities
- Anecdotes and memories, primarily by other celebrities
- The funeral
- In-depth coverage of the reason the star died—e.g., suicide in middle age for Robin Williams
- The last moments or days in the star’s life
- The star’s significance in his or her field and to the larger society
- The lessons we can all learn from the star’s life or death
- Past scandals or high moments in the life/career of the star, e.g. Bacall & Bogie supporting the blacklisted actors, directors and technicians
- Unfinished work that the public may be able to see after the star’s death
- The star’s financial state
- The star’s will and who gets what
- The dispensation of the star’s real estate
- Any special tributes that cities or organizations are making, from moments of silence to all-star concerts for charity
- His or her past sex life
Eventually, the backlash starts. We’ve already started seeing it with Robin Williams. Suddenly there are stories questioning how the news media covered the death; whether the celebrities who commented were self-serving or in good/bad taste; and whether the celebrity’s significance really warranted all the coverage. The media like nothing better than to flagellate themselves—or should I say, other media.
Input Robin Williams into Google News and you will find several versions of all of these generic story ideas; a search for Lauren Bacall and you’ll find at least one example of most of these concepts.
These media frenzies can go on for days, or in the case of someone of the stature of Michael Jackson, who died under suspicious circumstances, for weeks or months.
Some justify this intensive coverage of the death of a celebrity as part of the national mourning: the news media channels what everyone is feeling into a barrage of stories that give us all a good catharsis.
But the therapeutic value of mass media’s mass mourning begs a question: who is being glorified and beautified and why? Why does the media go on for days about Robin Williams or Phillip Seymour Hoffman and give cursory attention to the deaths of Maya Anjelou or Gabriel Garcia Marquez? What about scientists like Jancinto Convit or Andres Carrasco. Or Bill Dana, who flew the X-15 and other experimental aircraft or NASA engineer John Houbolt? Or how about Howard Baker, once the voice of conscience of the Republican Party? Why don’t we find out about their children, finances, real estate, deep secrets, life history, fears and significance?
If Robin William’s touched the lives of more people, it is not just because he starred in a few TV shows and movies. It’s also because the news media focuses much more on actors, singers, athletes and celebrities (people who are famous for being famous or for being rich) than they do on scientists, engineers, classical composers, elected officials (except presidents), scholars, jazz musicians and other high achievers.
The more significant question, though, is not who is being glorified, it’s why there is so much of it. I would be just as disappointed to see newspapers and the Internet stuffed with meaningless stories about a recently deceased great historian or scientist. In either case, the coverage is excessive because it drives out coverage of other, more important news. We get woefully inadequate coverage of local political campaigns and issues, much less than the news media gave us twenty or even ten years ago. Neither the New York Times nor Wall Street Journal seem to have enough space to do any stories on Democratic candidates this year, although I suspect a bias in favor the Republicans is part of the reason for ignoring Democratic primary races. We are painfully unaware of what is happening in many parts of the world. The mass media has practically ignored studies that show that charter schools are ineffective, immigrants raise the wages of other workers, we could supply the entire world’s electricity needs with windmills right now, inequality of wealth is growing and raising taxes on the wealthy leads to economic growth.
In short, the coverage of important economic, social and political issues is sparse, and often one-sided. Instead of news, we get dead celebrity worship.