Britney Spears as Breaking News

by Jake Halpern

One morning, earlier this week, I received a call from a producer at CNN who asked me if I wanted to appear on air to discuss my latest book, “Fame Junkies.” The book examines why Americans are so obsessed with celebrities and probes some of the more troubling ramifications of this obsession. One of the things that I say in my book is that cable news networks, like CNN, spend far too much time covering the lives of Hollywood stars instead of reporting hard news about the genocide in Darfur or the war in Iraq.

So it was certainly a delightful irony when, upon my arrival, I was told that my segment has been canceled due to breaking news. “Oh,” I said, “What happened?” The technician replied, “Didn’t you hear, Britney Spears just lost custody of her kids?”

The real tragedy, of course, is not that my little interview got “bumped,” but that a great many real news stories also got bumped. In 2004, for example, the nightly news shows on the three major networks spent a total of just 26 minutes covering the bloody conflict in Darfur, while they spent roughly 130 minutes on the Martha Stewart scandal.

Indeed, in this day and age, the news about the fate of Ms. Spears’s children is not just a “breaking news story,” it is a news extravaganza—a moment on par with hurricanes and massive floods—a phenomenon that causes seismic shifts in the workings of virtually every TV news room. On CNN it was the top news story on “Larry King Live,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” “Nancy Grace,” and “Showbiz Tonight”; and, of course, it was announced as breaking news by Carol Costello during her report on “The Situation Room.”

A word-count analysis of CNN transcripts for that day, Oct. 1, reveals that the network devoted almost three times as much coverage to Ms. Spears as it did to the war in Iraq. What’s more, CNN gave roughly 37 times more coverage to Ms. Spears than it did to the ongoing conflict in Darfur, which the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

It would be tempting to dismiss this episode as a “cable news phenomenon,” but this simply isn’t the case. Just ask Andrew Tyndall, author of the online Tyndall Report, which studies the content of the nightly news on the three major networks. Mr. Tyndall notes that, just two weeks ago, the story that commanded the most amount of combined air time was not the unveiling of Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan, or the racially polarizing feud in Jenna, La., or the Fed’s eagerly awaited interest-rate cut, or the breaking of the Blackwater scandal in Iraq—but the O.J. Simpson memorabilia robbery.

As much as we might like to, we can’t blame this on O.J. or on celebrities in general. Stories about the famous always have and always will hold some magical allure for people everywhere. In many ways, this is an ancient phenomenon. Long before the media became obsessed with legendary womanizers like Errol Flynn, the annals of Greek mythology were detailing the sex-romps of Zeus, who had more than 150 documented affairs. Back then the gods lived on Mt. Olympus. Nowadays they live in Beverly Hills.

The stargazing instinct may even be primal. Researchers at Duke University, led by Prof. Michael Platt, have recently shown that rhesus monkeys will actually give up food to stare at the pictures of the dominant monkeys in their group. To some extent, this instinct exists in humans as well. After all, who among us hasn’t, from time to time, glanced curiously at a gleaming copy of US Weekly to see whether Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie really did split?

The problem is not US Weekly, People, “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood” or any of the shows and publications that have always billed themselves as entertainment venues. The problem is when TV shows and entire networks, which Americans rely upon to get the news, allow real news stories to be pushed aside again and again and again in deference to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Americans will always be curious about movie stars. It’s interesting to note that, in the early days of Hollywood, the names of stars were not usually revealed and so moviegoers were forced to refer to their favorite actors rather vaguely as “the girl with the curls,” “the sad-eyed man” and “the fat guy.” But this arrangement left most people profoundly unsatisfied, and fans soon began asking theater managers and movie studios for more information about their favorite stars.

This curiosity may be insatiable. According to the Web site Yahoo!, eight of the top 10 search terms for 2006 were the names of celebrities, with—you guessed it—Britney Spears at the top of the list. The news networks like CNN may use this as ample justification for giving us more of the same. This is fine, as long they drop the pretense of giving us the “news.”