NEW YORK – Celebrities usually flash their pearly whites for the camera but lately fangs have been bared instead.
Venomous snap sessions, like the one between Michael Jackson and Sony Music honcho Tommy Mottola, have been buzzing in the press as high-profile people try to grab headlines, push agendas, garner sympathy — or all of the above.
These verbal smackdowns involve varying types of celebrities with a myriad of motivations, but even if things get nasty, "essentially all press is good press," said Michael Wolff, media columnist for New York magazine.
"These are public fights for a reason," said Wolff. "Of course this is show biz. If you don't have a fight in public then you're not really having a fight."
The King of Pop lashed out at Mottola, calling him a devil and labeling him a racist, all from the pulpit of press-monger Rev. Al Sharpton's headquarters. Sony then issued a statement calling Jackson's comments "ludicrous."
Pundit and author Ann Coulter recently bumped heads with Today show host Katie Couric. In Coulter's new book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, she calls Couric the liberal media's version of Hitler's mistress Eva Braun and a Ronald Reagan basher.
"You used me as an example of liberal bias against Reagan," Couric said. "I'm just curious why you took it so out of context."
Coulter fired back, "I don't think I did — you're taking it out of context."
So why are these public figures suddenly getting so snippy?
"Coulter did it to get attention for her book," said Roger Friedman, entertainment columnist for Foxnews.com. "Jacko did it because he suddenly woke up and had no money .... He freaked out and realized he had been taken advantage of."
And Martha Stewart hasn't made a live television appearance since the salad-chopping inquisition on CBS' The Early Show, when host Jane Clayson asked her about insider trading.
"It was clever on CBS' part. They knew she'd never answer [questions about her controversy]," said Friedman. "So they asked her while she was making her salad, which was brilliant, but that was the last time we saw her on TV."
Stewart's case proves that the "there's no such thing as bad publicity" adage isn't always true.
And experts say stars should avoid these public dust-ups if possible. Bonnie Shumofsky, a television and commercial agent at Abrams Artists Agency, said word wars are usually damaging to an artist's career.
"When something's said, it's like kindergarten again," Shumofsky said. "When someone gets called a name, you're better off to let it go."
But sometimes the snipes don't just fade away — and occasionally they can benefit an embattled star if orchestrated properly.
"Tommy Mottola is conducting a spin campaign against Jackson," Friedman said. "Jackson might be turning into the underdog now in the public mind."
But in the celebrity world, it doesn't even take an exchange of words to spark conflict. Sometimes just one celeb's statement can cause a maelstrom of controversy.
Recently, actress Angela Bassett's remarks about Halle Berry's Oscar-winning role in Monster's Ball — a role Bassett turned down — ignited sparks.
"I wasn't going to be a prostitute on film," Basset told Newsweek. "I couldn't do that because it's such a stereotype about black women and sexuality." Berry's character has sex with a white man who is initially portrayed as a racist.
Berry didn't lash back, and only said, "There's nothing I need to add to that." But the conflict was categorized as a catfight by much of the media.
While some public fights, like Jackson vs. Mottola, grab headlines for days, in most cases these celeb squabbles are just minor distractions in a media-saturated society, according to Wolff.
"The public pays attention to virtually nothing," he said. "And even if they pay attention to it today, it's wholly forgotten in two weeks, and even that's a long time. It's just blah … blah … blah. If publicity is the currency of our time, this is the small change."