For The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other elite newspapers, celebrity journalism is a tricky game. The broadsheets like to think of themselves as serious chroniclers of our times. In their hearts, they are all about politics, government, economics, foreign affairs, important social trends—"the first draft of history," as ye olde newsroom bromide puts it. This value system is reflected on their front pages every day.
Movie reviews are one thing: They have literary cred. And it's absolutely fine to cover the business of entertainment—ratings, box office, big-money stuff. But chasing Hollywood stars around and chronicling their ups and downs, well, that's not the sort of thing a self-respecting metropolitan daily wants to be too closely associated with, except maybe in the "soft" sections.
This all worked well 40 years ago when entertainment was still a relatively slender piece of our collective life. But fame has conquered everything, and newspapers face a constant dilemma—how to cover these wildly popular, immensely powerful people in a high-profile way without compromising the old-school, anti-entertainment values.
The broadsheets' lack of verve for celebrity coverage has been on display in the last week, as two stories about major Hollywood figures reached the mainstream derivatively, after breaking elsewhere first. The news about what really transpired during the arrest of Mel Gibson for drunk driving was broken by TMZ.com, a celebrity-news site owned by Time Warner. And the "mystery" of Suri, the infant daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes who has never been seen in public, took its first major establishment bow on the front of The New York Times business section, of all places, after gestating on popular blogs and in celebrity magazines for weeks. (The Suri question had been tracked in wire stories, broadsheet gossip items, and the occasional opinion column, but as far as I can tell, the Times piece was its breakthrough to the "legitimate" big time.)
In one way, this is all kind of embarrassing for the papers. Gibson's fall is L.A. news of the highest order. Surely the Los Angeles Times, with its legion of highly trained reporters, should have been able to get the suppressed police report before some upstart Web operation. And if millions of young celeb-watchers are consumed by the Suri question, silly as that may be, shouldn't the broadsheets at least try to figure out why?
But in another way, I think there's an accidental genius to the newspapers' reticence about celebrity. Let's face it, there's way too much content about famous people for anyone with a life to keep track of. And this is where the big papers come in. They may be stodgy and slow out of the gate, but they have become the ultimate filter of celebrity news, the barrier a story must cross to reach true critical mass.
To make it into the hard-news pages of The New York Times, for instance, a celeb story has to be framed in a way that makes it about something larger and more cosmic than mere gossip. Thus, in the hands of Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye, the Suri craze was a vehicle for discussing the modern "celebrity industry," in which baby photos are a kind of currency. The next day, the Times' Business section fronted another celebrity story, this one about the Gibson debacle, with a focus on the media angle and "the speed at which the scandal unfolded."
Some of these meta-efforts are a bit forced—a transparent way of horning in on a juicy story without getting one's haute-media hands dirty. All the same, by filtering the ever-breaking deluge of celebrity stories, the big papers have carved out a useful niche for themselves. It's similar to what happened to political journalism after The Drudge Report and other Web alternatives rose up and stole market share from the mainstream. The alternatives were so numerous, and sometimes of such dubious reliability, that the mainstream outlets arguably wound up in a more influential place than before. They tell us when to care.
So let the TMZs of the world get the dirt. The bluenose newspapers will sift it and tell us if it meets their exacting criteria. And when a celebrity story turns out to be truly enormous, as with Gibson, just give those geezer broadsheets a day or two. They'll come running.