The AP, Paris Hilton, and Orwell’s memory hole
One of the greatest crimes that the news media commits against society is “celebrity news”. There is no universe in which Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, or Anna Nicole Smith has ever done anything newsworthy, yet they’re covered with an almost gleeful zeal, and often get better coverage than, you know, stuff that matters. Democracy depends on the fourth estate to inform the electorate and enable them to make rational decisions at the voting booth. Every time that attention is given to Britney Spears’ haircut over, say, the economy or corruption in Congress, our constitution dies a little.
The worst offender on the celebrity side of this is Paris Hilton – who’s done nothing in her life other than raise “media whoring” to an art form. So when the AP says there’s a boycott on coverage of Miss Hilton, even a temporary one, there’s a part of me that cheers. And I’m glad to see I’m not alone in that:
Also by then, an internal AP memo about the ban had found its way to the outside world. The New York Observer quoted it on Wednesday, and the Gawker.com gossip site linked to it. Howard Stern was heard mentioning the ban on his radio show, and calls came in from various news outlets asking us about it. On Editor and Publisher magazine’s Web site, a reader wrote: “This is INCREDIBLE, finally a news organization that can see through this evil woman.” And another: “You guys are my heroes!”
However, while a world where Paris Hilton isn’t news is one I’d love to live in – there’s a scary side to this. The most striking thing about this isn’t the newsworthiness of celebrities getting traffic tickets, but rather what it highlights about the news publishing process itself. This is a demonstration of just how easily the news, and therefore public discourse, can be manipulated. Just as the AP (among other news organizations) created the Paris Hilton media phenomenon, the AP can also make Paris Hilton effectively disappear for millions of readers. If coverage of her were to simply stop, it would be as if she stopped existing, to the vast majority of the public anyway.
That might not sound too scary when it comes to Paris Hilton, but as one person quoted in the article mentioned, what if they decided to ignore North Korea? Or the evidence against the existence of WMD’s prior to the Iraq War? (oh, wait…)
Now, I don’t think we’re on the verge of an Orwellian nightmare here. Even if the AP did permanently stop covering Paris Hilton, there’s no doubt others would pick up the slack. So what the AP prints (or doesn’t) has minimal impact in the grand scheme of things. But I still find something unsettling in it – the mere possibility of a memory hole is a scary thing, regardless of how much I agree with what’s being put down it.