Robert Lichter really nailed it in his analysis of the media frenzy surrounding the Anna Nicole Smith story. Lichter, a George Mason University professor of journalism, explained to USA Today, "The media can't resist when something serious happens to someone frivolous. She had everything the media looks for in a story: money, sex, and dieting. Her death is so irresistible because it lets people mourn and gloat at the same time."
According to the Project on Excellence in Journalism, coverage of her death (including stories about her life) was the No. 3 story of last week, almost edging out the war in Iraq. The bosomy blonde's demise consumed a staggering 50 percent of the cable-news hole on two successive days. And Lichter's explanation of this is right.
Deep within the American consciousness beats the heart of a Victorian gentleman who likes nothing better than a story that shocks as well as titillates and about which he can shake a finger and say, "Shame, shame." It was that Victorian gentleman who was the target customer for mass-market papers that came into being at the end of the 19th century. The target customers for today's TV tabloid shows and celebrity magazines, whose circulations keep growing and growing, are not so very different.
Anna Nicole Smith's story really is the old morality tale of a girl who strays, becomes a stripper and a gold-digger, falls in with even more unsavory people, and finally comes to an appropriately bad, sad end. But upon this basic penny-dreadful is the overlay of a very 21st-century story of celebrity, where being famous for being famous is more than enough and can trump lack of talent, lack of substance, and, especially, lack of character (whether good or bad or anything noteworthy at all).
Add to that what modern media needs most — not the story, but the photos and video images that can illustrate the story — and you have "tabloid gold" that all the media can love. Once upon a time we knew people by their words; now we know them by their images. Let's be honest: When someone famous dies, the media now make a much bigger fuss if he or she was particularly photogenic. Part of the reason the deaths of Princess Diana and JFK Jr. got so much space was that there were huge archives of appealing pictures of them.
And there are so many photos of Anna Nicole, too, looking young and gorgeous, looking bloated and awful. By turns she is thin and voluptuous, then blowsy, then thin again.
In the last few days we have seen new photos that tell more of her story: Of her in bed with her friend, the Bahamian tourism minister (shocking, simply shocking!). A photo of her refrigerator where methadone and yogurt sit side-by-side. There is even a videotape of CPR being performed on her lifeless body. That tape was sold by paparazzi photo agency called Splash! for, allegedly, $500,000. And there are reports of more — and more sensational — photos to come.
Of course, part of the media frenzy is the media's own stories about their covering this event. We have heard how People thought it had a lock on the "hot" tabloid story of the week. They had already gone to press with the astronaut love-triangle as their lead. Then they learned there was a hotter story that broke too late for them to change their cover. A loss for them, but probably the best thing that could have happened to astronaut Lisa Nowak.
Some are now complaining about the non-stop coverage of Anna Nicole Smith and are decrying the low level of today's media. But ratings show people are watching. So Anna Nicole Smith will continue to be on the cover of the celeb magazines that sell six to seven million copies a week, and the news coverage of her death will surely continue, as the mystery of her child's daddy is unraveled and the fight for and about her inheritance continues. Even after the mourning and the gloating is over, the media are betting the audience will stay tuned in. And that's a pretty safe bet.
By Myrna Blyth
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online