The Anna Nicole Smith Press Frenzy

I’ve been thinking about blogging on the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death, which has rivaled coverage of the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. Then Scarlett sent me a link to this Slate article, and I made up my mind.

The article argues that Smith courted media publicity, and therefore the press need not apologize for sensationalizing the mess. I’m sure she did court publicity, but I disagree that this puts the press beyond reproach. Not so much for Smith’s sake (she’s beyond being hurt by it now, anyway), but because this fascination indicates several sick things about American culture.

“Now that the bad girl has been redeemed through death, it’s okay to romanticize her.” Like Newt Gingrich, Smith’s devotion to her spouse was questionable. Like Rush Limbaugh, she was a drug addict. Like Jeb Bush, she wasn’t a sufficiently good parent to raise a drug-free kid. But unlike all of them, she was bad beyond redemption. Boys will be boys, but women are supposed to be better than that.

Fortunately, we have a long cultural history of redeeming bad girls by sticking them in iron maidens or burning them at stakes. Those methods being illegal, a drug overdose will suffice. It redeemed Marilyn Monroe, whose good and bad were largely obscured by the romanticism of her death. The tragedy of the fallen woman. Oh, how superior it makes us feel when we cheat on our spouses or find ways to underpay our employees. Please, tell us more.

The press creates the image that fame is wonderful, then says it’s not their fault Smith sought headlines? Just after Smith’s death, one network showed parts of a recent interview with her that they hadn’t yet edited for airing. In it, she was stoned out of her mind to the point of listing and nearly passing out more than once. It struck me that had she lived, those were exactly the bits of the interview they would have cut, giving the impression she was sober and under control during that interview.

Maybe if the press didn’t work hand-in-hand with agents and PR machines like Smith’s, they would expose fame for the vile soul-crushing torture that it often is, and fewer young people would seek it. Oh, but then what would the agents and PR people do for a living?

It was slutty when she married for money, but it’s different when all these men are trying to claim Smith’s baby who will inherit that money. Apparently, it’s more wrong to marry for money than it is to try to claim ownership of a helpless human being in order to get money. Which is interesting, given that the exact purpose of the patriarchy was to create a system in which marriage was the only legal way for women to be financially cared for. What people are really objecting to is that Smith blatantly made marriage look like what it was designed to be (a financial arrangement) instead of what we like to pretend it always is (true love, except in the case of homosexuals, of course).

And those men who want to own her baby for its money? Hmm, that could make men look bad, not that looking like immoral sludge has ever hurt their image in the patriarchy, but still: let’s focus instead on this as an indication that Smith may have been really sleeping around a lot, the slut.

From the Slate article: “Fat, no-talent, bleach blondes from Texas with breast implants aren’t rare.” No, and neither are moronic* windbag journalists who feel entitled to denigrate an undetermined number of Texan women because they feel such women are beneath them. Forget that this is a rude statement. Let’s get to the heart of the issue:

Mr. Shafer, I’d wager the average fat, no-talent, bleach-blond, breast-enlarged Texan woman has more class and dignity than you would know what to do with.


More from the Slate article, demonstrating my claim that Shafer is a moron*: “Far from being useless pop entertainment, cable’s coverage taught viewers reams about civil procedure, pharmacology, and police work.” This is the great gift he claims the press coverage of Smith’s death brought us. This is an arguing technique known as “dude, you are so reaching”.

Law and Order and CSI have a better claim to public education, but they’re neither deluded nor narcissistic enough to make it. They know they are just a freakin’ TV show.

The last word from Slate: “Giving the audience what it wants shouldn’t automatically be considered a crime.” No, but – and here we come to the issue that made me start this site – when you carefully cultivate in the audience interest in certain stories, then cover those stories, you are not performing a public service. You are creating a demand so you can fulfill it. That’s not journalism – that’s marketing.

And if you weren’t making several hundred times off Smith the money she was making off of you, you wouldn’t have bothered.


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    That is a nice article, CL. Particularly where he asks if she had died of breast cancer, would the covering have been this salacious and tawdry?

    I have the impression she was probably a troubled and very flawed individual – as are most of us. I would welcome a media discussion about that, if it focused on what we can learn from her mistakes in life. Instead, the focus is on judging her for the very same things millions of us do. As usual, we take refuge in denial and hypocrisy rather than try to learn so that we can improve.

  2. scarlett says

    OK, I’ve focused more on Princess Diana here because her death, to me at least, exposed the hypocricy of the media and audience consumption more then ANS’s death did.

    In regards to ‘the public wants it’ argument for running such media campaigns, I think everyone involved has to take responsibility for what gets released by the media because of their consumption of it. I stopped buying tabloid mags a few years ago when I realised what a culture of pettiness they create and purpetuate.

    I’ve found the loudest critics of tabloid culture are the biggest consumers of it. I remember when Princess Diana died, I heard so many comments along the lines of ‘those damn papparrazzi ought to be hunted down, hey look, a paper selling different shots of the crash’. Dude, does your puny mind not connect your voracious appetite with her private life with the papparrazzi who’d go to great lengths to get the photos which publications would pay a fortune for because such people sent the circulation skyrocketing. (I think to date, several Aus mags cite their wedding edition is their highest selling ever, with ‘major Diana’ stories making up a few more of the top 10).

    The point of that little rant is that very few people stopped to think ‘hey, maybe we should stop buying the mags while we’re condemning tabloid culture’. Don’t get me wrong, I think the papparrazzi are scum, but I also think the audience that buys their product should take some responsibility for that. A friend of mine (and she was 13 at the time) said something like ‘I think we’re all responsibile for her death’.

    And on a different note – as far as her being treated so shabbily after her death, I can’t say for any other country’s defamation laws, but ours are really stringent and hugely in favour of the person claiming defamation (too much so, IMHO) so you often get ‘reporters’ publishing stuff after someone’s death that was too risky legally when they were alive. Yes, it’s bad journalism but I understand the legality behind it. (And I’m of the opinion that you can’t get a decent critical anayses of a person until ten years after they’re dead.)

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’ve never read tabloids, and I certainly hold those who do responsible for part of the problem. The main argument I hear is that we should blame the readers entirely, and I think that gives the press a free pass they don’t deserve. I mean, if there isn’t a story, they create one. I can’t blame readers for that.

    Our laws totally favor the press – even when it lies about a celeb, the celeb rarely wins a lawsuit. Sounds like the total opposite of yours.

    But the threat of lawsuits isn’t what guides the celeb-covering press here: it’s what the celeb’s PR machine wants. PR people here have so much power and influence – hell, they put Reagan in office, and that’s when they started working in politics as well as entertainment. The press has largely been co-opted by PR, to the point you can’t trust them even with serious stories. Or at least I don’t.

  4. scarlett says

    Strangely enough, I’ve always heard ‘blame the press and give the consumers a free pass’, which is why I can get so defensive about the press getting all the blame for tabloid culture.

    As far as our defamation laws go – one really well-known case was a universally unpopular pollie who was notorious for threatening the press for saying so much as ‘I don’t like this guy’. Legend has it that several publications and networks took turns keeping a vigil over his deathbed so the minute he was gone, they could publish all the stuff (a lot of it it fair critical anaylses) they hadn’t been able to when he was alive. SO in that case it made sense to me why the press would enjoy having carte blanche over what they could write following his death.

    Once I had an article edited because I said a current court case was a retrial, which had ended in a hung jury (true). You’re not allowed to make any hint of guilt or previous history – including trials which are a matter of public record/conciousness – so it doesn’t taint the jury’s opinion. I guess it’s a fairer system then what the US has (if Boston Legal is anything to go by) but it can be frustrating at times just how much your NOT allowed to say.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    It does sound like our laws and culture are sort of reversed, relative to yours.

    Perhaps this gives us insight into why Rupert Murdoch came here? His is the sleaziest major network on the air over here for tabloid and exploitation pieces. “When sharks go crazy and eat babies – live footage next on Fox!”

  6. scarlett says

    I don’t think we have the same culture of sensationalism here, but then, we have 1/10th the population. Audience reach was a huge thing for Murdoch (who, once again, my university was NOT named after – it was named after a left-wing relative!) moving to the US but I think defamation laws had a lot to do with it.

    Of the two evils – entirely in favour of the outlet or entirely in favour of the defamed – I think ours is slightly better but I think there’s got to be a common ground somewhere.

    This is something we had a good debate over in one of my units ; do celebs like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson who have actively courted the press through, among other things, reality TV shows, deserve less sympathy when the tabloids make stuff up about their private lives (and I’m talking print, who don’t do much physical harm) then celebs who are notoriously closed about their private lives like Jodie Foster and Tom Hanks?

  7. scarlett says

    When Larry Birkhead was named the father, was it just me, or was his response really smug? I mean, I guess he would have felt some validation after he’d been attacked by the media for exploiting her death, but the way he went about it seemed so… ‘nyah, nyah, I have a half-billion dollar baby’.

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