Anna Nicole: How TV fails the American public
by John Whitehead
"She was entropy porn at its finest." --Cintra Wilson, Salon
You would think that Mother Teresa had just died all over again the way the media, especially television, is covering every nuance of the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith.
FOX News Channel has labeled it a "tragedy," while devoting a portion of its website to a photo essay of her life. The Today Show ranks it ahead of their reporting on government corruption and cover-ups in the Libby trial. The LA Times provides readers with a timeline of her life, such that it was. The Houston Chronicle has printed a eulogy of sorts: thoughts from her friends ( Playboy 's Hugh Hefner being one of them) on her untimely death.
But it is an exotic dancer-turned-model whom the media is turning itself inside out to glorify: a stripper who met an octogenarian billionaire at the topless bar where she was working, subsequently divorced her hometown husband in order to marry the oil tycoon, only to become a widow a year later and spend the rest of her life fighting over her inheritance and using her notoriety to win a place in the tabloid media spotlight.
Pure and simple, Smith was a creation of the media, a porn star personified. Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1993. Guess jeans girl for a season or two. Producer and headliner in several movies that went bust. Star of a TV reality show that dwelt on the absurdity of her life. Spokesperson for diet pills. Mother of two: a son whose death at age 20 reflected a fast-track culture of drugs, and a baby whose paternity is being challenged by two different men.
Anyone who dies deserves a certain amount of sympathy (to quote John Donne: "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind"). However, what I find offensive is the way the media has fallen over itself in its eagerness to glorify someone who left little behind except nude photos, a handful of lawsuits and a 5-month-old baby girl who may or may not be an heiress.
The media's obsession can be chalked up to the white goddess syndrome. Smith was a tall, buxom blonde who positively smoldered with eroticism and sex, but she had no redeeming social or moral value other than as the object of the media's devotion.
As author Neal Gabler said, "She had no talent. She couldn't sing. She couldn't dance. She couldn't act. She was attractive. Anna Nicole Smith's job was to live a cinematic life, which could then be broadcast by the media and entertain us. So she's an entertainer in this new art form, which is life itself. The only value she had was doing things that had narrative components that would then show up in supermarket tabloids. That was her life."
The true tragedy in all of this is not that Smith died but that the media continues to fail the American public. First, they fail to give us the news. The death of Smith is not news. Very little real news is to be found on television anymore: Instead it's newzak.
Nearly all the news shows have shifted into entertainment formats; otherwise, they would not draw an audience in our entertainment-driven, non-information, low-content society. Most of the content of news programs now largely consists of inane entertainment items.
Second, the media has lost its way. The world is being devastated by crisis, war and the deaths of noble, courageous people. Yet seldom are their names even mentioned in the news. They have become mere statistics. However, this former stripper's death has already been given more coverage than the death of former President Gerald Ford.
Lest we forget, the media has a moral obligation to tell us what's going on in our society and the world, even if we don't like it. It's what we used to call the truth. They need to show us what's really happening. They need to challenge us. Instead, the media simply titillates the American public. Why? For the sake of ratings. That explains why they publicize their own media creations like Anna Nicole Smith.
Sadly, American society is essentially an extension of television. Some might even say that television is America's God. It holds tremendous sway over people's minds.
Maybe it's time to turn the television off.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute at Charlottesville, Va. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org . Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org .