How the Paparazzi Everyman Is Failing Our Entertainers, Failing Ourselves

Photo credit: Photographers taking a picture of a film star from

In 2012, marking 15 years since the death of Princess Diana, CBS News assessed the effects of that tragedy on “royals’ relationship with the press”. The report by Elizabeth Palmer features an interview with Ikon Pictures’ Niraj Tanna, “one of a new generation of paparazzi” that operates under a new set of rules. Tanna admits that conditions are safer now that paparazzi “can’t follow them, chase them, run after them, or do any of that sort of stuff.” The report concludes by suggesting that those changes create the greater likelihood “royal spin” but that no amount of manufactured royal coverage can entirely counter the fact that thanks to cell phones, “we’re all paparazzi now”.

Perhaps the democratization of recording technology and distribution channels is a contributing factor to the failing ideal of greater responsibility within post-Diana entertainment coverage. Certainly in the non-royal celebrity world, the paparazzi-subject relationship seems as tense as ever. It’s not uncommon to read about physical scuffles between photographers and celebrities such as Kanye West and Alec Baldwin. If the photographers who find themselves in those altercations are feeling competing pressure from the “citizen paparazzi”, then they are balancing the risk of offending their subjects against the risk of becoming obsolete within a new media. Those aren’t ideal conditions for taming the mercenary spirit that prioritizes getting the sound bite/shot/footage above any other consideration.

Now, more than 15 years on from an event that was supposed to change celebrity coverage forever, the ethical dilemmas of paparazzi photography are easy to identify but remain difficult to solve. And as they persist, there are other forms of journalist-celebrity encounters that involve many of the same tricky variables but receive less criticism or analysis. Some of these instances feature the well-known scenario of a celebrity overreacting or behaving badly, but more recently it is the journalists that seem to be exercising poor judgment.

Observer versus Observed

One common response to the press-as-burden perspective of celebrity life is that it’s not a bad tradeoff. Often, the entertainers most vocal/active in their opposition to being covered are the ones that enjoy lives of extraordinary luxury. To those on the outside, the obligation to interact with reporters seems a small price to pay for the kinds of opportunities such a lifestyle affords. Remarking on the ongoing dispute between actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Vanity Fair over that magazine’s upcoming profile of her, Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter explained, “Some famous people believe that they live in a cone of celebrity that protects them. But it doesn’t really exist anymore in LA unless they stay in.” For Carter, Paltrow is fair game.

Publications such as Vanity Fair contributed to Paltrow’s fame and celebrity status. But the magazine’s recent tendency to include some negative aspects of its subjects’ lives has apparently made the actress (a repeat Vanity Fair cover model) concerned about the nature of the current profile. So while it might seem at present that her public campaign to keep her friends from participating in the story is a form of biting the very hand that fed her career, another viewpoint would be that she retains the right to try to prevent an attack. Both sides of the dispute have legitimate concerns and interests.

Concerning celebrity profiles in print publications, a recent cover article from Rolling Stone demonstrates how far journalistic standards have fallen. “The Doobie Brothers: Lighting Up With the Stars of ‘This Is the End'”, written by Erik Hedegaard, is self-obsessed and misguided to the point of parody, so eager is the journalist to align himself with his subjects. Hedegaard’s writing style is to be full of himself, with constant references to an ill-defined “we”, which call attention to the outsider’s attempt to gain insider status. But his self-centeredness is a forgivable error when compared to his insistence that the subjects of the article to live up to his own preconceived notions of them.

This is the End stars Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, and Jonah Hill. One of the contexts for the Rolling Stone article is to evaluate the actors for how agreeable (or disagreeable) they might prove to be as captive partners in an end-of-world scenario like the one featured in the film. However, Hedegaard seems incapable of seeing these stars in anything but the narrowest of terms, as if characteristics that contradict their movie personas would disappoint. Taking a cue from the low-brow humor of their film, he asks them an inordinate number of questions surrounding drugs and sex and scatology. In fact, he makes a big deal of offering drugs to each of the actors, in order to see which ones will partake. And given the formula that he concocted for his assignment, Hedegaard writes favorably of the actors most compliant with his plans. He rates Rogen and McBride most positively, because they accept his drugs and answer his questions involving sex and bathroom humor.

Hill, on the other hand, rebuffs his inquisitor’s approach. He’s rightly insulted when Hedegaard calls him “Seth” at their introduction. He tries to give thoughtful answers about religion and responsibility and helping out others in the midst of a world-ending crisis, but Hedegaard wants the juvenile onscreen version of Hill to appear. He seems uninterested in getting to know the actual person in front of him. Eventually, Hill becomes so frustrated with Hedegaard’s fixations on bodily functions that he says “I’m not answering that dumb question! I’m not that kind of person! Being in a funny movie doesn’t make me have to answer dumb questions. It has nothing to do with who I am.” The (predictable) result is that Hill is characterized in the piece as too uptight.

In theory, Hedegaard has the restricted perspective of print journalism on his side. The reader wasn’t present to observe his interactions with the actors. His narrative of their encounters becomes the official story. He has the power to shape every aspect. But he overplays his hand throughout and is apparently unaware of how poorly his own persona is constructed and conveyed. In the dozens of comments that accompany the online version of the story, a large majority of commenters take Hedegaard to task for his unprofessional behavior. Many support Hill outright, suggesting he won the round.

The online reaction to “The Doobie Brothers: Lighting Up With the Stars of ‘This Is the End'” reinforces the increasing perception of journalists and celebrities as combatants. Once the stuff of paparazzi encounters that could erupt into fisticuffs, such contention between sides is increasingly part of the published story (regardless of format). The negative details no longer need to be edited out. To the contrary, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone benefit from publicity generated by the friction. And as a result of being challenged and/or mischaracterized, celebrities like Paltrow and Hill also find their profiles heightened by the news, likely gaining new fans/supporters/observers in the process. A business- or public relations-minded observer might say that everyone wins.

Upend the Junk

In July 2013, Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey wrote about a recent string of contentious encounters that took place during “movie junkets”. The instances he refers to in “Don’t Blame Bruce Willis: How the Internet Made Movie Junkets Insufferable”, are video interviews that became popular online because of their deviations from the standard congratulatory tone of the junket format. Bailey argues that “the web has changed the movie-promotion experience in another way, as we’ve seen from the wide exposure to these clips: when you only get five minutes, you’re gonna use it all, and if it makes a celebrity look like a brat, so be it.” He correctly identifies the impact of the Internet on how junket interviews are exhibited, insofar as “web” distribution isn’t limited to the heavily edited, “sound bite” style favored by television broadcasts. Yet there’s a greater cultural context for the increasing occurrence of junkets-gone-wrong — one that cannot be wholly attributed to relaxed editing restrictions and/or “traffic”-baiting.

When CBS News asserts, “we’re all paparazzi now”, the implication is that many individuals have access to tools that allow them to easily acquire and distribute audio and video. The only barrier is proximity to the subject of the recording. The democratization of the ability to document has occurred alongside the parallel developments of social media and “reality” programming on TV and online. The cumulative effect is the erasure of the line between celebrities and the individuals that hope to chronicle their lives. Regardless of how constructed and manufactured social media and reality programming might be, the effect is to grant the audience the appearance of a front-row seat to celebrities’ lives.

In short, we’ve been reoriented into a false sense of familiarity with figures that used to belong to an elite class. And while it’s healthy for a society to recognize that people are just people after all, that recognition backfires when certain structures, such as the junket, combine the old order with the new familiarity. To return to Bailey’s examples, the Mila Kunis-Chris Stark interview is refreshing because the two work in harmony to dismantle the old order in a way that suits both parties.

Stark is starstruck, Kunis graciously helps him overcome his nervousness, and both seem to genuinely enjoy demystifying the junket setup for the audience. To the actress’s delight, they depart from the topic at hand (Oz the Great and Powerful) and share a conversation that seems to exist independently of its audience. In the space of a few minutes, they arrive at that rarest occurrence within a press junket — a genuine interest in, and familiarity with, one another.

In contrast, the Bruce Willis interview is notable for the star’s frustrated reaction, and more so for the lack of respect shown to him by journalist Jamie Edwards.

For the initial seconds of the interview, Willis and Mary Louise Parker appear poised to dutifully promote their film, Red 2, in a manner consistent with the smile-and-chat nature of the traditional junket. But around 20 seconds in, Edwards errs by reminding Parker to “remember the mic’s here”. He says so with a laugh, but his instruction is intended to promote the brand of his radio station, which is printed on the microphone cover. Parker politely follows his command, but in that moment lays Edwards’ choice to call attention to the mechanics of the press junket. His is the first departure. Immediately following that (awkwardly employed) moment of reflexivity, Edwards makes a much more significant error by embarrassing Willis. He challenges the actor’s answer about favorite shooting locations for Red 2, and then continues to laugh as Willis explains that he mistook the question to mean favorite shooting locations, in general.

After being embarrassed in such a way, and likely aware that his moment of embarrassment will make the “final cut” of this interview, Willis chooses to control the rest of the exchange by being completely honest with Edwards. He responds, “This part is not acting, what we’re doing right now — you might be — but we’re just selling the film now. Sales. That fun part was making the movie.” Like Jonah Hill in Rolling Stone, Willis tries in vain to get through to a journalist who is only interested in the world of the film. Many of the YouTube users that commented on the video, and those that shared the video, did so in order to highlight Willis’ perceived rudeness. Yet what I see in Willis here is an actor who recognizes a broken/bogus structure and wants to go outside of it in order to discuss matters beyond the movie. In that sense, Edwards fails to realize the excellent opportunity he has to share a meaningful conversation. He wastes the actor’s willingness to “get real” by trying to stay on script and promote the product. Sales.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Wallace talks to Lipsky about the empty pleasure of television:

I think one of the reasons that I feel empty after watching a lot of TV, and one of the things that makes TV seductive, is that it gives the illusion of relationships with people. It’s a way to have people in the room talking and being entertaining, but it doesn’t require anything of me. I mean, I can see them, they can’t see me. And that they’re there for me, and I can, I can receive from the TV, I can receive entertainment and stimulation. Without having to give anything back but the most tangential kind of attention. And that is very seductive.

The problem is it’s also very empty. Because one of the differences about having a real person there is that number one, I’ve gotta do some work. Like, he pays attention to me, I gotta pay attention to him. You know: I watch him, he watches me. The stress level goes up. But there’s also, there’s something nourishing about it, because I think like as creatures, we’ve all got to figure out how to be together in the same room.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these issues are on Wallace’s mind as he is on a book tour to promote Infinite Jest. He articulates his thoughts as an observer, reaching a point in his life after which he would also be widely observed.

Many of the breakdowns that are occurring in journalist-celebrity encounters involve the journalists’ expectation of “[receiving] entertainment and stimulation without having to give anything back but the most tangential kind of attention.” The junket is the ultimate embodiment of this problem, as it literally involves “[figuring] out how to be together in the same room.” Yet time and again, journalists fail to extend respect to their subjects. And these encounters about the media, which play out in the media, are the highly visible effects of broader cultural shifts that are occurring regardless of celebrity status.

The present technoculture enables previously unimaginable levels of interactivity. But the transparent screens that we believe equalize us could quickly become opaque if overfamiliarity corrodes common courtesy. Because if we really are all paparazzi now, then the grim options available are to chase, shoot, and capture before being chased, shot, and captured. And that’s nothing to celebrate.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.