When word leaked out that ABC television had commissioned the actor Leonardo DiCaprio to interview President Clinton for a special Earth Day broadcast, the network’s top news executives huffed and puffed and said that surely nobody at ABC news would be so stupidtheir word, not mineto enlist a mere actor (particularly one without the well-chiseled facial lines that suggest the requisite gravitas) to interview the president of the United States. Why, the very thought!
Matters got so serious, what with all the hand-wringing and talk about journalistic standards, that it was possible for a moment to forget that the subject at hand was, after all, television newsa field that has hardly stood firm against the relentless pressure of celebrity culture and creeping tabloidism. Indeed, commercial television journalism, with its cult of anchors and its relentless marketing of so-called "stars," long ago adopted the techniques and values of show business.
Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote the classic film "Network," had the last word on television news, and he wrote his satire in the early 1980’s, a time that now looks like something of a golden age of news broadcasting. NBC had yet to lead off its newscasts with O. J. Simpson updates; Jerry Springer had not been recruited as a local news commentator in Chicago, and political talk shows attempted to discuss issues with a certain degree of oh-so-boring decorum.
The DiCaprio mini-scandal surely was a case of television news taken to its logical conclusion. After all, what are famous television journalists but co-equals of sorts with the Leonardo DiCaprios of the world? In a culture that worships fame and makes few value judgments about how that fame is achieved, is there any difference between a movie star and a national television journalist who gladly capitalizes on his or her celebrity to "write" books, attend swell movie openings and collect enormous fees for appearing at trade shows?
A celebrity is a celebrity is a celebrity. Those ubiquitous television news "stars" who clearly prize hollow fame ahead of all elseincluding the transmission of wisdom and insightare hardly in a position to complain when networks turn to other celebrities in pursuit of almighty ratings.
So the DiCaprio matter is easily explained and, sadly, not really such a big deal. Quite frankly, it’s entirely possible that Leonardo DiCaprio’s interview with the president was just as substantative as most television news interviews. It would be unkind to name names, but images of certain well-known "serious television journalists" come to mind. It is unlikely DiCaprio asked the president what kind of tree he’d be, or what he thought of Newt Gingrich’s extramarital activities.
More troubling than the thought of an actor posing as a television correspondent is the notion, which was expressed in so many words by some defenders of the DiCaprio interview, that young people respond best, indeed only, to celebritiesand not merely television-news celebrities, but cover-of-Vanity Fair über-celebrities. Whether you’re selling news or gun control or global warming or tax cuts, if you don’t have a celebrity espousing your cause, nobody’s going to hear you. A further conclusion is hard to avoid: if you’re not a celebrity, your opinion and your activism don’t matter.
This profoundly disturbing trend was celebrated in a recent issue of George magazine and in a follow-up piece in The New York Times. Granted, the Times piece ran in the Sunday Styles section, a part of the paper devoted to readers more interested in mindless consuming than serious thinking, but its lack of outrage over the dumbing-down of civic discourse was startling. "A celebrity is expected to have an issue now as much as he or she is expected to have an agent," one entertainment type told The Times. Oh, great.
Those schooled in postmodern irony would argue that civic leadership by celebrities is no big deal; then again, such critics would argue that life is no big deal. And, yes, celebrities have long sought to attach themselves to matters more serious than movie-making or image-building. Why, even crusty Harry Truman rubbed shoulders with the young Lauren Bacall at a political event or two.
But Lauren Bacall has never talked about running for president, as the likes of Warren Beatty and Cybill Shepherd have. Mainstream media in the 1950’s may have been a good deal less democratic than they are today, but at least their practitioners took politics and government seriously. That can hardly be said of the editors and television news executives who seem all too eager to promote celebrities as more than just actors or tycoons, but as the natural leaders of our media-drenched society. A young investment banker who gained his own share of fame by losing money for his bevy of celebrity clients recently asserted that Leonardo DiCaprio is more powerful than the president (which suggests that the actor and Bill Clinton should have exchanged roles during their ABC non-interview) and that Michael Ovitz, Hollywood czar, was more important than the whole of Congress. What’s sad is that it’s easy to see why he reached such a conclusion.
As the commentator Bill Kristol told The Times, we have become an unserious nation. It follows, then, that we look to unserious people to lead us, to tell us what to think, what to buy and how to live.