NEW YORK – "Trouble in Paradise?" "Heading for Splitsville?"
Every week, tabloid headlines like these scream about celebrity couples whose relationships are allegedly on the rocks.
Jessica Simpson (search) and Nick Lachey (search) have been the favorite target lately, with the rags and Hollywood magazine shows speculating endlessly about whether the "Newlyweds" are soon to be "Newlydivorceds" because of their alleged heated fights, time spent apart and marital misery.
So far, Simpson and Lachey have stayed together, insisting they're happy.
But now-exes Brad Pitt (search) and Jennifer Aniston (search) and Jennifer Lopez (search) and Ben Affleck (search) have received similar treatment in the past, begging the question: Are tabloids, celebrity magazines, entertainment shows and newspaper gossip columns contributing to the downfall of Hollywood relationships?
Some insiders and observers say they are.
"There's a certain truth in that," said pop culture expert Neal Gabler (search), author of "Life: The Movie" and a panelist on "FOX News Watch." "Speculation about a relationship can affect it because it creates a perception that is then internalized. In Hollywood, it's always said that perception is reality."
But tabloid editors deny they're helping break up celebrity couples, and say it's just the facts, ma'am.
"We don't make up stories, we're not breaking up couples. We're reporting facts as we see them," said Tom O'Neil, senior editor at In Touch Weekly. "Just because it's negative, too bad. They could choose to behave themselves and they don't."
Indeed, a British tabloid was recently responsible for exposing Jude Law's (search) romps with his children's nanny behind fiancée Sienna Miller's (search) back. When one of Law's kids caught them in bed, their mother and his ex, Sadie Frost (search), had the nanny fired; the angry babysitter spilled the whole sordid tale to the rag.
The smear caused the leading man first to deny the report, then confess and apologize to Miller, begging her to take him back. So far, she's said no.
Former Star magazine editor Phil Bunton agreed with O'Neil that in reporting these types of stories, there's usually something fishy that the press picks up on.
"Where there's smoke, there's fire," said Bunton, now the editor of Nyack Rivertown, a monthly magazine. "If there's negative publicity, it's usually because there's something icky going on."
But sometimes the gossip-hungry, stargazing press makes mistakes, O'Neil admitted.
"The tabloids report on what's already going on and sometimes get it wrong," he said. "They are not deliberately being reckless. For the most part, what you have read in the celebrity weeklies has already been proven to be true."
But though editors say it's the stars who are ultimately responsible for the demise of their own relationships — not the press — sometimes the tabs do contribute, according to Bunton.
"I don't think the tabloids break celebrities up — the celebrities break themselves up," he said. "Where the tabloids come into play is they'll catch a celebrity cheating. … We'll take a picture, and that will break them up."
Frequently, it's how the star couple acts together in public that sparks the rumors. The paparazzi will snap a surprise shot of a pair looking angry or unhappy, walking far apart rather than holding hands, not wearing wedding or engagement rings, even fighting, and then it's off to the races — with never-ending musings about whether the relationship is in turmoil.
That happened to Pitt and Aniston, with a barrage of stories analyzing their "tense" body language months before they announced they were calling it quits. Then came all the headlines about whether he'd cheated on Aniston with his "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" co-star Angelina Jolie (search).
And sometimes, it's that feeling of drowning in a sea of doubt that can finally sink a couple.
"When people start doubting your relationship, it's very hard to stay afloat," said Anderson Jones, a film critic with AMC's Movie Club. "If you start thinking your relationship is in trouble because of rumors and innuendo, you can actually destroy it in your own head."
Even if the tabs don't intentionally set out to ruin celebrity couples, it can certainly seem that way to fans, readers and viewers greeted by so much negative publicity and speculation about this or that match made in Hollywood.
"I'm sure it doesn't help," said Cristina Barden, a confessed celebrity gossip-monger from Queens, N.Y. "I'm sure it sells papers and magazines, so of course they're going to go after it."
O'Neil said it's often the stars themselves who play the blame game with the tabloids and circulate the idea that the demise of their relationship is the media's fault.
J-Lo, for instance, did that after whipping up a media frenzy over her planned glam wedding to Affleck, sending the paparazzi on wild goose chases to three decoy weddings, according to O'Neil.
Lopez was called a diva, Affleck was accused of commitment phobia and ultimately, they split up.
"She had the nerve to blame the media for the collapse of the actual marriage," he said. "They deliberately do these things and then blame the media for breaking them up. ... I'm sure [the tabloids] do have an effect on couples, but the blame lays completely on the celebrity. They are totally in charge of what goes on."
"Totally in charge" might be a stretch, considering the sheer volume of celebrity media these days. Though a tabloid alone doesn't generally have much impact, it can definitely make some waves when combined with all the other rags and gossip shows, according to Gabler.
"Singularly, they're not powerful at all, but when you take all of them together, they're very powerful," he said. "They're part of a giant machine."
Because of that mega-PR machine and the fact that many stars have been burned — whether it's largely their fault or not — some of the rich and famous apparently do learn from their mistakes. Affleck and J-Lo are a perfect example.
Since their very public relationship and even more public breakup, both have found love again — he with a new Jen, "Alias" actress Jennifer Garner (search) (who is pregnant with his child and whom he recently married), and she with singer Marc Anthony (search). But this time around, the two halves of the original Bennifer are keeping a low profile.
"They have learned their lesson, and it's a tough lesson," Gabler said. "If the media decides that they don't like you at that moment, that you've got some kind of hubris, they're going to go after you."