If 2007 was shaped by anything, it was the scuffle to pay for information about Anna Nicole Smith.
Before her death on Feb. 8, 2007, I had rarely, if ever, thought about Smith. I certainly had not written much about her. The birth of her baby the previous September was not that interesting. The death of her grown son was, but not that much. He wasn’t a celebrity. She was a Grade D personality, a buffoonish comic strip, a Marilyn Monroe pretender.
And then came her mysterious death at age 39 in Florida. Anna Nicole’s crazy exit from the world was terrible for her baby daughter, but worse for journalists who cover entertainment. Overnight, everything we held dear was wrecked.
For the weeks leading up to her death, Anna Nicole had turned up again on "Entertainment Tonight." It was obvious they’d entered into some kind of deal with her and Howard K. Stern. And then, on the day she died, Stern suddenly became a fixture on the show. The money had been renegotiated.
Checkbook journalism? Sure. But worse than that: "ET" and its horrid counterpart show, "The Insider," are owned by CBS through Viacom. The syndicator is called CBS Paramount Television. Times have changed. The Tiffany network now had a cousin that was willing to pay anyone and everyone for "exclusives." And not of news that mattered. They were paying for this shrill crap.
It wasn’t like Larry Birkhead, the father of Anna Nicole’s baby, would be left out of the loop. I reported here on April 13 that his then attorney, Debra Opri, had cut a deal with NBC for Larry to appear exclusively on "ET" rival "Access Hollywood" for millions. NBC made their deal through Bravo, a subsidiary, pretending to make a documentary, rather than taint NBC News. It didn’t work.
Rob Silverstein, the executive producer of "Access," told me then: "I’ve never seen a story where so many hands are out."
And so many to fill them.
This column reported that Stern and Smith had made a deal with Paramount TV back before her baby was born. Then, when the baby arrived and Smith’s son died, "Entertainment Tonight" and "The Insider" began their long exclusive arrangement with Stern.
Sources also insist that Paramount Television paid for Smith’s lavish Bahamas funeral. "They put $300,000 into Dannielynn’s account," an insider insists. "That’s how they bought their access."
And Birkhead cashed in right along with Stern. He sold pictures of himself and baby Dannielynn to OK! Magazine for a million dollars before the Bahamas court even ruled that he was the father. The cash-out had gone crazy.
The most egregious thing "ET" and CBS Paramount did was turn Smith’s doctor, Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, into a correspondent, witness and source. The doctor is in thousands of feet of footage broadcast by "ET" and "The Insider." She was called Smith’s best friend and confidante. What or how she was paid by the show is unclear.
Beginning on March 2, I told you in this column that something was up with Dr. Eroshevich. It wasn’t until Friday, Oct. 12, seven months later, that, search warrants were issued and searches of the doctor’s offices began by the Medical Board of California and the California Department of Justice.
In the intervening months, however, "ET" and "The Insider" continued to rely on her as a paid, factual source.
They didn’t seem to get it.
On March 16 I told you about a fax Dr. Eroshevich, Smith’s personal psychiatrist, sent to a Los Angeles pharmacy asking that a laundry list of drugs be couriered to the Bahamas for Anna Nicole. The doctor used the pseudonym "M. Chase" for Smith.
The list of drugs requested included four bottles of 2 mg Dilaudid; 2 ml bottles of Lorazepam (Ativan); two bottles of 350 mg Soma, a total of 180 tablets; one bottle each of 30 mg Dalmane and 400 mg Prexige, the latter a British drug; and one bottle of methadone, 300 5mg tablets. All of them are classified as different types of painkillers.
Eroshevich sent the fax on Sept. 15, 2006, a week after baby Dannielynn was born, five days after the death of Smith's 20-year-old son, Daniel Smith, and about five months before the former Playboy pinup died.
You can read the whole story here. Dr. Eroshevich is now under investigation. Her offices are closed. Her name is not heard on "ET" or "The Insider" anymore.
Look back on the first six months of 2007. It seems impossible that so much time and energy was wasted on Anna Nicole, Howard K. Stern, and Larry Birkhead? Did it change our lives? Do you care now? The answer is no.
Of course, the Anna Nicole saga did not stop there. While interest in the principals finally waned, the extraordinary effort that was put in to such nonsense led us to September, and Britney Spears.
Just as anything with Anna Nicole’s name on it had grabbed us by the throats in the spring, now Britney was the autumn bookend. And now of course there was no hesitation. All bets were off. So, too, was Britney’s underwear. And that was an international headline.
Something else changed during those intervening months, too. Paparazzi became stalkerazzi. TV shows and Web sites now followed celebrities with video cameras, and posted the most unflattering, embarrassing moments within minutes. Celebrity children were no longer off limits. All the old rules were out the window. Everyone and everything were fair game.
Gossip, you know, was always fun. It was a guilty pleasure to know the rich and famous suffered in little ways. Their good news was also worthwhile. Somehow a little of the latter leavened the former.
Gossip columnists, who had to adhere to print journalism rules, knew that for the most part. They knew there was a balance. And they enjoyed the people they wrote about. You always got that from Liz Smith or Cindy Adams. In the old days, it was Earl Wilson and Leonard Lyons. It was their love of show biz that drew you in.
The new video stalkers, as well as many of the bloggers who’ve joined them, live on anger. Their tone is angry and bitter. No one is safe from this enmity.
Why are they so angry? Because they’re not being invited to join the celebrities to make the merriment that’s being recorded.
The velvet ropes, the nutty aggressive publicists and the hostile security people who look and behave like ex-cons have contributed to this. They’ve fed the anger. So now we’ll pay to get information on — [fill in the blank] —.
The reason? "They deserve it." And that’s been the theme of 2007.
I don’t want ever to hear Anna Nicole Smith’s name again, but I’m sure she and her crew will come back to haunt us. We don’t seem able to get rid of Britney, and now her teenage sister — famous for nothing — looks poised to take the baton from her.
And still you know there are a lot of interesting people who should be commanding our attention.
Last week I had lunch with three remarkable young people, the "student" actors from Denzel Washington’s film, "The Great Debaters": Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker. They have no scandals.
Smollett is 21, bright and beautiful, involved in raising money for African causes. Jurnee (her mom named for the journey her labor took her on) has been acting since she’s a toddler. She’s the real thing.
I loved Nate and Denzel W, too. The former is this movie’s Derek Luke — a great looking, smart kid with a terrific future. He had the courage to leave a future as a computer programmer in Texas and head to Hollywood. It was the right move.
Whitaker (no relation to the stars) is 17 going on 40. He’s applying to USC and UCLA film schools to be a director. He has the mien of a wise old guy. We’re going to see big things from all of them.
When you see "The Great Debaters," you’ll realize that these three made for such a memorable film.
I can only hope that in 2008 we’re going to have more stories about them and people like them — people of substance — and so few about … you know who.
Otherwise, we will really be paying for it. With our souls!
And oh, yes, by the way: Britney’s "Blackout" is at No. 112 on Amazon.com, Mischa Barton was arrested Thursday for a DUI in California and Angelina Jolie was named Celebrity Humanitarian of the Year in a Reuters poll.
As for the latter: While Angelina has definitely made herself the best known martyr in the free world, I would argue that Paul Newman is actually the Celebrity Humanitarian of the Year. The great ones, you see, don’t boast. They just get the job done.
Click here to read Roger Friedman's 411 column about the death of Benazir Bhutto.