Celebrity gossip: Is it time to unplug?

[26 September 2007]

By Steve Johnson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

It was tolerable, at least, this explosion in celebrity gossip, when it was primarily an Internet thing. With new venom and none of the old-school sugar coating, sites such as TMZ and Perez Hilton prattled on about who was gay and closeted, who had a new mug shot taken and why, who was wasted in Hollywood last night and on what.

They grew huge and nearly inescapable, like the supermarket-checkout-line tabloids of old, but without the furtive quality. Gossip sites were becoming mainstream, like almost nothing in Net culture short of YouTube and MySpace.

We could dip into or out of the celebrity chronicles as we chose, though it was impossible not to bump into them during a day of even work-related Internet activity. Thanks to the Great Chain of Linkage, there are two, at most three, degrees of separation between respectable sites and the gossip dens.

And once you’re in them, of course, it is nearly impossible to slip out. A peek at what the judge said to Britney leads you to click on the headline about singer Amy Winehouse “bloodied again.” From there, it takes a constitution of steel not to click on the headline about the “High School Musical” star, or not to cruise over to the site that is said to be showing the naked photo of her.

Before you know it, you’ve spent 45 minutes that seemed exciting at the time but leave you with a feeling more hollow than you used to get after a night flipping through the wonder that cable television was once thought to be.

Which is a reminder: television.

Now the best-known gossip sites, already Top 10 among entertainment destinations on the Web and rapidly growing, are slipping beyond the digital domain and into the broader, bigger realm of TV.

TMZ.com, the otherwise tacky outfit that has broken stories including the one about Mel Gibson being a couple of drinks away from raving anti-Semitism, now has “TMZ on TV,” fresh every weeknight on the screen that doesn’t involve your mouse. Perez Hilton, star of his own exuberant, shamelessly juvenile gossip blog, is the star of a new VH1 show called “What Perez Sez About ... “

It may be too late to go back, what with Us Weekly dominating the newsstands and with cell-phone video cameras in the pockets of a generation trained to take pictures first, post them to the Web second and ask questions about the propriety of it never. But now that the gossip eruption has oozed over into TV, it is time to rein in our salacious instincts and at least try to say, “enough.”

Enough with the endless chronicling of, for instance, Lindsay Lohan, who once had flashes of superstar promise but now couldn’t open a movie if it came in a Netflix envelope.

Enough with the non-stop Britney “news.” At some point a wrecked train is a wrecked train, and whether the roof then caves in ceases to be of import.

But mostly, enough with encouraging the dominant attitude in the most popular Internet gossip sites, the one that says, “You are famous, and so you have relinquished all right to reasonable treatment. You will be stalked, preferably with a video camera. You will be hounded until you get ticked off enough to bark back, and then you will be mocked for your lack of restraint.”

It is one thing to report vigorously on illegal doings by people who happen to be well known, quite another to troll Los Angeles streets in hopes of catching an ordinary behavior - borrowing $5 from a friend to pay the valet - and then turn it, with commentary, rancid.

It may make even the most star-crazed among us queasy at times, but the stars, for their fame, have sacrificed the right to complain, says Mario Lavandeira, the sometime actor better known as Perez Hilton.

“My position is that if you are a politician or a celebrity, you’re making a choice to live your life in the public arena, and when you’re a public figure, you need to be prepared for the public talking about you,” he says.

Lavandeira’s idea of commentary is to scrawl on photographs he posts: “Suicide watch” on a Britney Spears picture, male genitalia on a guy next to Jessica Simpson in a shot. Of such wit is Web superstardom born.

Surprisingly, he’s almost charming in the TV show. Basic-cable standards won’t let him indulge his most base instincts, so instead he reverts to the puppy-dog superfan impulses that seem to have gotten him started.

TMZ, on the other hand, gets nastier on TV, in part because it often has scant news to report and has to fill its daily half-hours with old footage and what its staffers think is cutting commentary. The show ends up being just another variation on the rampant celebrity worship that got us into this mess in the first place, a vocation so lucrative it’s sucking in even the seemingly unwilling.

“This is not my bag. I am a lawyer. I did investigative reporting,” says Harvey Levin, the former TV producer (“Celebrity Justice”) who started TMZ for AOL Time Warner and Telepictures Productions. He stars in “TMZ on TV” as sort of the show’s guiding intellectual force. This involves saying, “I love it,” when told of some new naked-person footage that the site’s minions have scared up. But he can’t quite muster a defense of what TMZ does.

He’s eloquent on his operation’s reporting standards, which are pretty good in terms of breaking news, much less so in making fair use of the video it accumulates by trolling Hollywood late at night. Levin is apologetic about some of the site’s and the show’s sophomoric excesses, which include scrawling a Hitler mustache on a mug shot of Mel Gibson. “It left me cold too,” he says of that one. In the early going, however, that kind of junior-high-school taunting has been closer to the show’s dominant voice than anything resembling real wit.

But ask him why TMZ, which stands for the “Thirty-Mile Zone” around Hollywood, is important or necessary, and you get something close to a Miss Teen South Carolina stammer, to reference another recent Internet gossip victim.

“It is interesting, and I think kind of important for people to talk about,” he says. “People are interested in celebrities who are interesting.”

And they are interested even in ones who are not that interesting. TMZ, the No. 1 entertainment site, according to Web measurement firm comScore, increased its audience by 55 percent in the past year, from 6.1 million to 9.5 million unique monthly visitors.

The No. 2 site, Yahoo’s gossip operation called OMG!, didn’t exist a year ago and now has 8 million visitors. Hilton’s site checks in at No. 10, having rocketed from 760,000 monthly visitors to 2.3 million.

“The average person watching TV news today is probably familiar with brands like TMZ or Perez Hilton because they keep breaking the big celebrity gossip stories,” says Andrew Lipsman, an analyst for comScore. “Anyone watching the recent coverage of O.J.‘s arrest knows that the audio recording of the incident in question was sold to TMZ for big bucks.”

Meanwhile, more general Web news sites are featuring celebrity doings right alongside more traditional news because the celebrity stuff drives traffic.

“In August of `07, 47 million people in the U.S. visited entertainment news sites, marking a dramatic 30 percent increase over the same period last year,” Lipsman says. “By comparison, 100 million people visited general news sites,” a 3 percent increase. All is not lost if the bigger tent of “news” continues to outdraw the ratty tent of celebrity news, but “it’s clear that entertainment news is gaining ground.”

And that means that we, as Web surfers, news consumers and, like it or not, celebrity idolaters, have a responsibility to stop encouraging them. If a site has something original or witty to say, fine.

The fashion mavens at Go Fug Yourself (gofugyourself.typepad.com) are cutting but supremely clever in making sport of celebrity costuming. The boys at Defamer (defamer.com) go beyond pretending this stuff is news or even meaningful. Their freewheeling tone admits we’re all in it for the voyeurism.

But these sites are the exception to the rule. Most of what’s out there is ugly in tone, ugly in intention, ugly in spirit. It needs, if not a spanking, then a good, solid ignoring to keep it from taking over all the screens in our lives.

We may never nudge trashy gossip back to sidelong glances in the checkout line, but we can at least try to make the pleasure people take in it a lot more guilty.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/celebrity-gossip-is-it-time-to-unplug/