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News Media Gone Wild!

February 21st, 2007 · No Comments

Back to work after the three-day Washington’s Birthday weekend, I scanned my usual list of online publications, and for fun clicked on the Celebritology blog at the Washington Post.

Here is how the February 20 entry from gossip writer Liz Kelly began:

“Unless you spent the long weekend in a sensory deprivation chamber, you know Britney Spears — in full view of a horde of photographers — wandered into a neighborhood hair salon in California on Friday night and proceeded to shave her head.”

For the first time in my life, one of those stories that begin with “Unless you spent the long weekend in a sensory deprivation chamber” was addressing me. I hadn’t actually spent the weekend locked away, but I still missed the latest news about Britney’s clean shave and sad decline.

What a weekend I must have missed. Wall-to-wall coverage of bald Britney, who got inked with a couple new tattoos, too. (Now she’s off to a rehab clinic.)

Fortunately, Newsweek isn’t complicit in the making of characters like Britney. They just report the news, and don’t trade on salacious tales of celebrities.

At least, that’s the line from Newsweek, which featured new best friends Paris Hilton and Britney Spears on a recent cover. The title of the story was “The Girls Gone Wild Effect: Out-of-control celebs and online sleaze fuel a new debate over kids and values.”

When I first picked up this issue of Newsweek, I thought “hey — what’s People magazine doing here? But, inside the magazine, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham argued that his magazine hadn’t “gone soft” by cynically exploiting the images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to sell magazines.

Instead, Meacham said the magazine’s cover story was “a serious-minded attempt to figure out how the prevailing celebrity ethos of women behaving badly is–and is not–affecting girls.”

As it turns out, the “new debate over kids and values” isn’t new, and isn’t much of a debate either. Meacham writes that “kids, educators and parents we talked to worry that there is a growing ‘Girls Gone Wild’ effect–that, as one mother puts it, we are at risk of raising ‘prosti-tots’.”

That’s the money word in this Newsweek trend piece, but a closer look reveals that the cover story is based on the opinions of about ten people (including the author’s six-year-old daughter, who has seen Lindsay Lohan in “The Parent Trap” at least ten times, but who has not yet turned into a prosti-tot).

If all it takes is the opinions of ten people to identify a national trend, we can expect lots more of this cheap pseudo-sociology dreck from Newsweek.

There are two other problems with Newsweek‘s presumed expose of a new, disturbing trend in America.

First, by Newsweek‘s own account, girls are doing better these days. We’re eight years since Britney Spears’ pop music debut, yet teen pregnancy rates are down, as are rates of smoking, drinking, and drug use for teenage girls. Young women now earn a majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, too.

There is clearly a better trend story in these more positive statistics, but Newsweek instead focuses on a few women behaving badly.

Second, Newsweek blames media outlets like US magazine, YouTube videos, and “E! True Hollywood Stories” for popularizing “bad girls” like Britney, Paris, and Lindsay. Yet, what about Newsweek itself? Editor Meacham says they are no sell-out, but a review of Newsweek articles from 2006 shows 16 different stories mentioning Britney, 23 mentioning Paris, and 8 citing Lindsay.

This means that if you had a Newsweek subscription last year, you could count on about 30 percent of the issues mentioning Britney Spears.

In fact, in their Dec. 25, 2006 edition Newsweek wrapped up the year of newsmaker coverage with a piece titled “It’s their world–we just mock it.”

“With war in Iraq, sickness, poverty and senseless killing all over the news, it’s a relief that we still have people like Britney Spears to remind us what’s really important: getting out of a car in a skirt with no underwear on,” the article said.

Newsweek‘s sanctimony rings hollow. If they decide to start a “serious-minded” debate about media sleaze, they should consider themselves among its purveyors.

Tags: Journalism Ethics · Magazines

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