Annals of Tabloid Journalism: Britney Edition

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
(Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
It's not funny anymore and, looking back, it never really was. It is instead a miracle that no one who circles in the orbit of Britney Spears, never mind the dwarfed star herself, has yet been killed or gravely wounded as a result of her mental breakdown. It is a wonder that no cars have been crashed into innocent civilians and that those two poor kids still (technically anyway) have both a mother and a father.

Spears has done nothing to me or my son. She's not even on our pop radar, unlike, say, whatsherface Hannah Montana. I can sing some of her songs by heart (this happens when they get played over and over again in the car) but I couldn't name you a Britney song if you put a gun to my head. And after Spears' latest bizarre episode whatever allure there once may have been to poke fun at her slide into madness has lost its gleam.

For as long as I can remember I have trashed the value of legal stories about Spears as being unworthy of national coverage — and certainly unworthy of my own analysis. But I was wrong. Spears and her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, aren't just goofy pop stars who have allowed their lives to become an industry catering lavishly to the lonely and lame, the insecure and insufficient, the bored and boring, and the curious and prurient among us. They aren't just circus freaks whom millions of their fellow citizens, their fellow parents, point to in judgment in the hope of convincing themselves that they aren't so bad after all.

Spears and Federline are also grand symbols for the thousands of other poor, miserable families who go through this every year in this country. Ask any divorce attorney or child advocate or parenting counselor you know. People — parents — break down like this. They lose control. They do and say irresponsible things. When this happens to an ordinary family, an anonymous family, we'd think it tragic. Why should it be different when it happens to an extraordinary family?

In a perfect world, all the minutes devoted to the (mostly) pathetic coverage of Spears' hospitalization late last week would instead have been devoted to touching stories of plain, old, unknown families caught up in divorce and madness. In a perfect world the cynical chiefs at E! and other networks and shows which traffic in garbage celebrity news would instead focus upon how the criminal justice system has struggled to adapt to changing patterns in parenting rights and child custody. In a perfect world, the numb and dumb who watch these shows might actually learn something of consequence.

This will never happen, of course. So today I feel only pity for Spears (and, to a lesser extent, to Federline). How sad it is when a mother, or a father, no longer is able to parent. How difficult it will be for those children when they grow older to overcome this lost time with their mother. How disappointing it seems that no one within Spears' immediate family could successfully intervene to save her before this. Who among us would want to trade places today with Spears or Federline or those kids?

None of this means I don't blame Spears herself for falling apart. There is in fact plenty of blame to go around. But finding fault when a person loses all she has to live for — or discovering instead that someone isn't even sane enough to understand what she has to live for — should never preclude empathy and compassion. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun: I shall no longer tinker with the machinery that has made a laugh-track out of Spears' life. And I wish her in 2008 nothing but good health and happiness and a return to her kids.
  • Andrew Cohen

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