There is a famous old superstition in baseball. Never tell a pitcher he’s got a no-hitter going. If you do, he’ll give up seven runs the next inning and not only blow the no-hitter, but lose the game.
There should be a similar superstition in journalism. In last week’s column, I praised reporters and commentators for their priorities in the aftermath of Sept. 11. "Ceasing their fixation on off-key singers, no talent actors and ego-riddled athletes," I wrote, in all innocence, "the media have instead been telling us about firemen and policemen and ordinary citizens standing in long lines to donate blood. Ceasing to fixate on stars, telling us instead about heroes."
Since then, the media have reported the following:
Boxing promoter Don King paid a visit to Ground Zero saying, "America brought me down here today."
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the twins who used to star in the sitcom "Full House," posted a note on their website, saying, "We should all pull together in a time like this."
On Shirley MacLaine’s website, usually a hotbed of helpful hints on reincarnation, the star now offers meditations, suitable for downloading, which are intended to "heal and center" the world and "melt" both the hearts and weapons of America’s foes "with love."
On her website, Melanie Griffith WANTS PEACE, and asks for it in capital letters.
And Joan Rivers, poor Joan Rivers, "had the double trauma of mourning the attacks as well as the death of her beloved dog, Spike."
The media have lost their no-hitter.
The Associated Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Daily News are among the press outlets who reported the above items and are beginning to give us the celebrity view of terrorism. Television networks are doing the same. Arnold Schwarzenegger discussed the attacks on The Tonight Show, Access Hollywood, and Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. John Travolta reported on his trip to Ground Zero on Entertainment Tonight. And CNN’s Larry King interviewed Angelina Jolie, who recently spent some time in Afghanistan.
Celebrities are as entitled as anyone else to their views and the free expression of them and this column is not about celebrities, or at least not about them entirely. This column is about the media who attach so much importance to celebrity views, who think that because a person won an Oscar or an Emmy or a People’s Choice award, or appeared on the cover of a magazine or promoted a prizefight or sold jewelry on some cable shopping network—who think that for these reasons he or she should somehow be taken seriously on events that lead the newscast and fill the front page.
He or she should not.
It is, of course, a natural that the media does this. Celebrities are the obsession of our age, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are the biggest news story of our age; to combine them, as the media are now doing, is to kill two birds with one stone.
You can marvel at Don King’s hair at the same time that you marvel at his grasp of domestic priorities.
You can shake your head at how big the Olsen gals are getting at the same time that you shake your head at how perceptive they now are.
You can appreciate Shirley MacLaine’s access to the spirit world at the same time that you appreciate her plans to bring Usama bin Laden and the Taliban to heel through a psychic raising of the temperature.
Granted, the media have been giving time and space to more appropriate voices. Granted, they have a great deal of time and space to fill. And granted, some of the celebrities, having actually seen the rescue and cleanup efforts in New York and Washington, can provide eyewitness accounts that others cannot.
But whenever journalists relay those accounts to us, the tragedy of Sept. 11 becomes trivialized. The account is a footnote to the celebrity’s image. The account is an excuse for air time more than a public service. The account is a few lines of dialogue, a new role. The account is a further presumption that those of us in the viewing and reading audience are supposed to care about the person providing it.
When Don King went to Ground Zero, he wore a denim jacket that, according to the AP, was "covered with spangles and emblazoned with his own likeness on the back." What mattered most to you, Mr. King—that you saw the firemen and policemen and other rescue workers, the real celebrities of the day, performing their grim and heroic labors?
Or that they saw you?
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 11 a.m. ET/9 a.m. PT.
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