McGuire on Media

Objectifying celebrities and other humans becoming huge journalism sin

I’ve known for some time that a lot of students thought it, but a student finally said it out loud in my Ethics class last Thursday.

We were talking about celebrity foibles and the press’ interest in them. The Rex Ryan alleged foot fetish case, the alleged Brett Favre obscene picture situation and Lindsay Lohan’s troubled episodes were the context for a fascinating discussion. As I was making my standard point about whether the students would like such information published about their own lives, the magic words were finally spoken. “Well celebrities aren’t really human beings!” Finally, honesty had won the day.  My young student had put into words what I am convinced is increasingly becoming the standard for coverage of celebrities of any ilk.

I pressed the student by saying, “Is that a real or facetious comment?” His reply: “a little facetious, but not very.”

I wrote about this issue 14 months ago in a post about the Tiger Woods case. In that post I discussed the “need to know” and “want to know distinction” and I used this paragraph: Brett Haber in his From the Press column in USA Today grasps the essence of the problem too.  “People want answers from Tiger, but not because they need them or have a right to them, rather because they’re curious. I don’t believe any federal judge has ever issued a subpoena on the grounds of curiosity.” As I wrote then, “Great line, but apparently stunning to many in the media.”

In that same post, I worried that speculation about rumors has somehow been legitimized by the mainstream media. As I told my class last week I really don’t care about what Gawker, Deadspin  or TMZ do. My concern is what the mainstream press such as ESPN, national and regional newspapers and local TV stations do with the material found on those gossip sites.

It appears that as long as something appears on YouTube, or a gossip site, the mainstream press shouts “well, it’s out there so we have to publish it. ” That “it’s out there” mentality is not only potentially devastating, it’s a moral cop-out of monumental proportions. As your Mom used to say, “if your friend Bill jumped off a bridge, would you?” Same damn thing.

The core of the problem, however, is  journalists increasingly are forgetting that the human bond requires some compassion. There are lots of clever ways around the question of whether celebrities are really human. One of my really sharp students offered it the other day when she said: “Many celebrities have become ‘brands’ and we don’t really owe brands the same duties we owe human beings.” Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio offered the same argument last year when he discussed Tiger Woods.  He contended there are no boundaries because Woods has become a brand.

Another student was bothered by that line of thought. She cleverly responded, brands like Kellogg and Microsoft don’t seem to be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny Brett Favre and Tiger Woods are! I agreed with her point but I privately fret if Gawker or Deadspin get a rogue tip on Tony the Tiger’s sex life they might just print it!

This objectifying problem is not confined to celebrities. Listen to the politicians talk about “poor,” “illegal immigrants,” ad “Medicaid patients.” Politicians focus on the numbers and want to talk about “them” in the abstract. It’s easy to demonize “them.”  Politicians seem to get upset when journalism focuses on the human beings. 

Often, we simply miss wonderful opportunities to humanize. This was an impressive chart  in the New York Times Sunday. It showed casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was so much data it made my head spin and  I turned away from it.  If those little stick figures had been thumbnail pictures of the people killed in those wars in 2010 I would have been riveted. A human connection would have been made and readers would feel much differently about that antiseptic chart. 

Tomorrow in my Media Ethics class here at the Walter Cronkite School I will be discussing Kant. Seasoned journalists may sneer at Kant, but he has a lot to teach us. Kant argues all human being have an inherent worth he calls dignity. He says Beings with dignity — oneself and others — must be treated with respect. From that he derives his Categorical Imperative: Act always so as to treat humanity, in your own person and that of others always at the same time as an end, and never simply as a means.

It really doesn’t seem like an extreme request for journalists who believe they have a noble purpose. Let’s try to appreciate and spotlight the human dignity of story subjects. Journalism would get better.

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