Last night, "Evening News" anchor Katie Couric uttered the dreaded two words that she had vowed never to speak on the show: Paris. Hilton. In Boston a month ago, Couric had said, "We have a precious amount of time on the CBS 'Evening News' and I don't think we need to ever utter the name Paris Hilton."
Last night, however, Hilton took up a fair chunk of that precious airtime. (The reason, of course, was the heiress' early release from jail.) The "Evening News" story, it's only fair to note, was less about Hilton than the reaction that greeted her release. "The bar for outrage over celebrity behavior is set pretty high in Hollywood these days," Couric said by way of introduction to a Bill Whitaker report, "but Paris Hilton's very early release from jail has brought howls of protest and cries of a double standard." Click on the video box to watch the report.
America's not-always-equitable justice system, of course, is a worthy topic for a news show, and if it takes the release from jail of a celebrity to get it on the news, it's hard to be too upset. But the nature of the Hilton coverage has been downright embarrassing. Instead of looking at the reality of the situation – and segueing into a discussion of the loopholes, double standards and arbitrariness one often finds in the legal system – most media outlets are pandering to news consumers' class resentment.
"Do not cell-ebrate just yet, Paris, dear," the schoolmarmish New York Daily News proclaimed, while the New York Post gave us "Poor Li'l Rich Paris Is Free…For Now." (And there are about a million other examples along these lines.) What gets lost in all this finger wagging is that Hilton probably shouldn't have been sentenced to such a long jail term in the first place – and only got such a harsh punishment precisely because of her celebrity. Driving with a suspended license is not the type of crime that typically earns a first-time offender 45 days in jail – or even the 23 days that the sentence was eventually reduced to. But the judge wanted to punish Hilton severely to make an example of her. As Andrew Cohen noted over at Couric & Co:
I think it is inevitable for judges or prosecutors to see high-profile defendants not just as individuals but as means to an end—the end being some sort of deterrent to others to avoid certain conduct. The judge hoped he would not only teach Hilton a lesson—and who among us wouldn't want to do that?--but also teach everyone else out there on probation to get their driver's licenses updated.The story here isn't as simple as media outlets seem to want it to be, but since outrage sells papers and drives ratings, much of the media seem to be saying, why bother with context? Hilton's release could provide an opportunity for the press corps to examine the pros and cons of a legal system in which celebrity (and a million other factors) can be a plus, a minus, or both. But instead it's being used as an excuse to fan anger towards a woman who has become a symbol of a culture that both attracts and repels many Americans. And as much as we might want to, we can't blame Hilton for that.