Can There Be Honor in Covering Anna Nicole Smith? And Bob Woodruff Speaks About his Injuries in Iraq
I knew some readers would balk at my thesis today that there can be honor and journalism quality in covering the travailas of self-destructive celebrities such as Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears.
But I'm not sure I was prepared for the anger coming my way from some respondents, including one caller who insisted diplomatically that these stories were "complete bullshit" before asking me if I even liked any of Spears' albums.
After I admitted that I actually did like some of her stuff, he left me with a particularly eloquent rejoinder before the hang-up: "You ain't too hip, bro."
Perhaps. But this isn't about being hip, or cool, or cutting edge. This is about a simple question: Should good journalists spend time doing good stories on celebrity-driven subjects, particularly when they capture the public's attention the way Anna Nicole and Britney have?
I mean, if we can do big stories when Anna Nicole debuts a widely-watched reality TV show, or when Britney releases her new album or film, why wouldn't we do stories when they die unexpectedly or fall into a personal spiral?
The other argument I've been getting in various emails is the "we're at war" argument. Here's that position, epitomized by an email I got this morning: As you know, we are still at war in Iraq, and possibly go into war with Iran (I hope not.) There are soliders dying in front of our faces every day, not to mention the countless lives that were lost on September 11th. We have been wasting so many damn times on this story. Ms. Smith and Spears knew that they brought this on themselves, and we the media, have been following this story like brainless vultures. Mr. Deggans, before you write your paycheck, think about not just the soliders, or the victims, but the children who's mom or dad died. Before we rant off on this sweeps-driven nonsense."
True enough, there are people dying every day in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places in American-led conflicts. But that may be the problem. American soldiers have been dying regularly in these hot spots for nearly four years or more -- by the time Anna Nicole died in early February, nearly 30 U.S. personnel had already been killed this year in Iraq.
The truth is, there will always be death and dying in war zones, and responsible news organizations -- even those that have been covering Britney and Anna Nicole -- have been covering these issues for years.
But I think there are also some good stories in this celebrity news arena. Such as:
--- Which big media companies are making a killing on the peddling of tabloid-style coverage of disintegrating celebrities? Do compaies such as VH1 and E! which create shows based on the dysfunctional lives of celebrities have a responsiblity to get them help? Why aren't they doing so?
---Who has cut deals with the principals in the Anna Nicole custody/paternity fights for exclusive media access? Is that distorting their coverage? Are viewers/readers sufficiently notified of these conflicts?
--- Smith's estate seems likely to be awarded $88-million to $400-million from the estate of her former husband. Who is likely to get control of that fortune? Is it the man who turns out to be the father of her 5-month-old baby? And why hasn't that question been settled until now?
---Some celebrities have turned rehab into a revolving door: well known names such as Britney and Lindsey and Nicole have multiple stints/relapses. Why? What's the difference between those who succeed -- the Craig Fergusons and, so far, Robert Downey Jrs -- and those who don't? Are we seeing people at the center of a particularly corrosive celebrity culture, or do they struggle with the same issues as any other addict?
Of course, then I got an email from a reporter at a small southern newspaper who wanted me to settle a bet: They have information that a particularly self-destructive star may be undergoing rehabin their area. And they had news that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston sold a home they owned together back when news was first breaking that the couple was splitting up.
The newspaper, so far, has sat on both stories. Should they have published?
Hate to admit, if I could have confirmed both stories, I would have gone with them in a heartbeat -- although probably not as major news stories.
Maybe I'm just an old tabloid news editor at heart.
Bob Woodruff Talks About Injury and Loss in Iraq
Courtesy of a major media blitz by ABC News, there's lots of coverage about ABC's documentary at 10 tonight by fallen anchor Bob Woodruff, injured in Iraq by an improvised explosive device in January 2006.
"It was tough to stand there and look at him, 'cause he wasn’t moving," said Woodruff's brother Dave, as quoted in ABC's documentary tonight, upon seeing the anchor in a German hospital. "I mean, he was on a ventilator, he's got all these things hooked up, and thinking, you know, what, I mean, what happened here? How, how did, how did this, how'd we get to this point?"
In fact, it tooks weeks for Woodruff to regain his faculties, recovering from injuries which required removing part of his skull to repair.
Now substantialy recovered from his injuries, Woodruff has used his return to TV to highlight the struggles of soldiers who werent as lucky -- coming back from Iraq with significant brain injuries, a side of war which often goes unreported.
"No one wants to go to Richmond and see like the Marine Corps captain that lived in the room next to him that was drooling on himself wearing diapers," said Sarah Wade, the wife of one injured soldier, in tonight's documentary. "It goes from being graphic to disturbing and people don't want to see the disturbing part. I don’t think people can handle that."
Woodruff explores special rehabilitation centers set up across the country, including Tampa, and asks tough questions about whether the Veterans Administration is fully prepared to care for soldiers who return with brain injuries -- theorizing that 150,000 soldiers may have brain injuries that are undiagnosed as military officials pressure their staff not to speak publicly on the issue.
And while Woodruff promises to keep reporting on the story for ABC News, the ratings success of his successor as top anchor, Charlie Gibson, seems to ensure he won't be able to return to his former job anytime soon, either.