Journalists are like puppies. If you don't give them chew toys, they'll tear up the furniture.
Thank goodness for Paris Hilton! Now that Hizzonner has re-jugged the simple minded heiress, the news media will have something to keep them out of trouble for the next few weeks or so. Will she go to the bathroom, or will she not? America’s news media await the answer breathlessly.
No, I don’t care. But there is hardly anything that this observer appreciates more than a story, however shallow, that keeps reporters out of trouble.
Summer is the silly season for the American news media. Real news trickles in slowly when school is out and the news media fight boredom with news manufacturing.
This is not new. In the early days of newspapers, publishers would respond to slow news and sluggish sales with “crime waves.” Stories that normally deserved a sentence or two in the police blotter, would suddenly command front page bold type. The editorial page would demand that the mayor and the police chief take action to protect the citizenry from the scourge of gangsters.
The purpose of these crusades was not the illumination of the readership, but to incite the public into a frenzy that would hopefully pull newspapers out their summer sales doldrums.
These newspapers were fortunate that they did not have the blogosphere looking over their shoulders, or they never could have gotten away with these hoaxes. In no time at all, bloggers would have downloaded crime statistics from June and compared them with March, documented an unchanged crime rate, and posted it on their websites. The mainstream press still attempts similar hoaxes today. But the mainstream media are losing control of the news, because they can no longer control information.
A few years ago, a slow summer gave us the “Summer of the Shark.” Sharks were attacking everywhere. Shark attacks were top of the hour news. In the same week shark attacks were the cover story for both Newsweek and Time magazines. Bloggers pointed out that there were no more shark attacks that summer than any other and also pointed out that falling coconuts kill three times as many people annually as sharks.
But if hype were all the news media’s only crime during the slow season, then they wouldn’t constitute a genuine menace. A couple of years ago, the bored news media discovered a dull witted Cindy Sheehan and spent their slow season using her as a sock puppet to ventriloquize their own opinions. They sanitized her rhetoric of its hate and anti-Semitism and created a hero. If the custody fight over Anna Nicole Smith’s baby had played out then, the world would look different today.
One of the great things about Paris Hilton news is that there seems to be something on the menu for everyone. I break it down into three main categories. First there is news for people who want to know about Paris Hilton or who simply love either a train wreck or a good lynching. These voyeurs can find their appetites satiated everywhere. Even the New York Times, which put the news of a foiled terrorist plot at JFK airport on page 37, put Paris Hilton on page 1.
Pop culture celebrity sociologists will don their tweed sport coats, light their pipes, and grimly pontificate about what all the attention paid to Paris Hilton says about the state of our civilization.
And finally there are those who use Paris Hilton news coverage to judge what such attention says about the mainstream news media. No matter what the story, somehow the media will find a way to make it all about themselves.
I fall into a fourth category. I am relieved that the news media have Paris Hilton to obsess on so that they don’t get themselves into any mischief during the slow season.
I did not watch, of course. I respect my brain cells too much. But sources that I consider reliable inform me that when Paris Hilton was hauled back before the judge, television stations suspended regular programming to broadcast live helicopter views of the police car dragging her back to the courthouse. It was a scene reminiscent of the slow motion O. J. Simpson car chase that was carried on every network, with the possible exception of the Weather Channel and maybe the Golf Network.
My only worry is that Paris Hilton will only gain us a three week reprieve.