- SOCIETY & LIFESTYLES
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Anna Nicole Smith was found dead on Thursday, February 8, in her drug-littered Florida hotel room. Ms. Smith, whose major claims to fame were appearing nude in a men’s magazine and her brief marriage to an elderly oil magnate, reportedly died of a drug overdose. She was 39.
Before her untimely death, she remained in the “entertainment” background, mostly known as the brunt of jokes and the star of her own kitschy television show. But today she has been yanked from the tabloid headlines and instantly splashed across the mainstream news, touted as a modern-day “Marilyn Monroe.” Even the most reputable news organizations reported almost entirely on this event for days.
Celebrity Internet sites were bombarded with heavy traffic, evidence of the public yearning for every scrap of information it could glean. “Anna Nicole Smith” quickly became the most searched Internet phrase, leaving others far behind; some celebrity websites even crashed under the sudden influx of visitors. Her name held its top spot for days.
The LA Times reported, “Traffic on entertainment and personality websites leapt 54% compared with the day before Smith’s death…More than 14,000 blogs posted information, opinions and rants about her death…”
Seeing the intense interest online, television stations realized they had to capitalize on the event to boost ratings. It was evident the public wanted to hear about her death more than any other news story. Thus began the onslaught of television specials, adding to the nonstop media coverage.
By frequenting Anna Nicole-related web pages and blogs, Internet users chose the programs and articles they would see and hear for the following days. It is no longer the magnitude of the event that draws the media’s attention—it is public interest that makes a story “news-worthy.”
Tim Rutten of The LA Times expands upon this: “The mainstream journalistic coverage of Smith’s death is among the first such stories driven, in large part, by an editorial perception of public interest derived mainly from Internet traffic…It’s a safe bet that those numbers helped shove Anna Nicole Smith onto a lot of front pages.”
The coverage of this news item eclipsed all others, leaving one to believe there was little else happening in the world. Yet America was at war in Iraq, and troubles still exist with Iran and North Korea—the earth did not suddenly stop turning, waiting for the shallow, news-driven media storm to pass over. Sadly, the reporting of actual news events simply had to take a back seat.
The number of times major cable news stations mentioned Iraq compared to Anna Nicole Smith makes the picture a little clearer: “By Friday, the website thinkprogress.org had tallied up the damage to the public trust via a chart that showed CNN had made reference to Smith 141 times by Thursday afternoon, versus 27 references to Iraq. The Anna Nicole versus Iraq scores for MSNBC (170-24) and Fox News (112-33) weren’t much different” (LA Times).
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer commented that Ms. Smith’s death was the only story his news organization reported for two solid hours. “I know a lot of people are complaining about that,” he said. “But a lot of people are also watching” (Journalism.org).
According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from February 4-9, the sudden death of the Playmate-turned-heiress-turned-reality TV star became the No. 3 news story.
To varying degrees, newspapers, television stations and websites operate on what the general public wants to see and hear. The public received what it called for—and Ms. Smith’s death brought to light what most truly want reported. There is an intense and growing interest in celebrities and their lifestyles.
Consider this excerpt from The Real Truth article “America’s Idols – Why the Obsession With the Rich and Famous”:
“Following the celebrity’s life also serves to divert attention away from their own. When focusing on someone else’s problems, thoughts of one’s financial difficulties go away and marriage problems are forgotten (at least temporarily). It is much easier to escape to someone else’s life.”
Why was Anna Nicole Smith popular in the first place? What did she accomplish that brought her death front and center in the public spotlight? Years ago, celebrities were famous for accomplishments, whether they were businessmen, actors, artists or talented authors.
How different today. The public is more interested in what a pop singer wore to a party, or who checked into rehab, than in understanding national and world news, which actually affects their lives.
Anna Nicole Smith’s death simply brought to the mainstream a demand that was already there. Could society get any shallower?