Is Jack Abramoff the new Jessica Simpson? I believe he is, actually, and this is an excellent thing for all of us.
Something strange and unlikely is happening in the news right now, a subtle shift that violates a cardinal rule of media theory. The rule is that frothy Hollywood fare is taking over journalism.
"Entertainment values" are so rampant in the media, the pessimists argue, you can't go anywhere without running into Paris and Lindsay, Nick and Jessica, and all the rest of them.
This is true in a purely quantitative way. The newsstands are jammed with trashy celeb-obsessed magazines, and they appear to be thriving. Lately, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's romance, and now pregnancy, has been a boon to newsstand sales of Us Weekly, People, and similar magazines, according to a report in Women's Wear Daily this week.
And there is plenty of spillover in high-end news outlets where, long, long ago, movie stars seldom surfaced. This week, New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley reported that at the Golden Globe Awards, Pamela Anderson "seemed intent on confounding expectations" by covering up her legendary chest with what appeared to be "an Islamic fundamentalist bed jacket." This comes from a premier writer at the nation's premier newspaper. Eventually, one might worry, the only time that Islamic fundamentalism will come up in the media is in connection with a celebrity body-part.
But right now there's no need to worry, thanks to Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, the Alito hearings, and other compelling stories that have been livening up Washington and giving the celebrities a run for their money.
Suddenly, the gray old capital is full of the meaty stuff that makes the news sing: authentic moral corruption, public shame, personal betrayals, and unscripted public clashes between gigantic egos.
Of course, Hollywood news pretends to have all these things. Stars cheat on their spouses, fall in and out of addiction, have catfights. And news about movie stars is not inherently wicked. Hollywood is a great American industry, a font of many of our most powerful narratives. Once upon a time, as the obit pages reminded us this week, a Shelley Winters could come out of the Actors Studio bursting with talent. When her racy private life later turned up in the tabloids, half the interest was in the fact that she really was accomplished and smart. There was depth there.
The current generation of big media stars, those now playing on a cheesy magazine cover near you, are not the greatest examplars of this tradition. Today, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey come out of a reality show, thinly talented at best, and when their personal lives turn up in the headlines, it just doesn't pack the same punch. It's a long way from The Diary of Anne Frank to The Dukes of Hazzard.
Compounding the problem is the fact that most celebrity news is carefully packaged and calculated so that it plays exactly as the stars want it to play. Last week, after People broke the news of Jolie's pregnancy, the New York Post's Keith J. Kelly reported that People had written a large check—"believed to be around $400,000"—to Yele Haiti, a nonprofit organization that Jolie endorses, and which provided the cover photo. People denied it was a "pay-for-access" story, but even if that's technically true, any fool knows this is generally how these things work. You pay to play—if not in cash, then in the soft content the stars require.
Contrast the latest products of the media's fame factory with the Washington news of the moment: the breathtakingly real seaminess of the Abramoff story, the unscripted drama of Tom DeLay's fall, even the relatively minor human tableau of the Alito hearings. Whatever you think of Samuel Alito's fitness for the Supreme Court, does anyone doubt that Martha-Ann Alito's tears were real?
Accepting his Golden Globe award, George Clooney thanked Jack Abramoff. It was a setup for a dumb joke, but Clooney, lately lauded for his serious "issue" movies, knows whereof he speaks. We all have Abramoff to thank—he's not a great man, but he's great material.