The Playgoer: Paris Hilton: Cultural Experience?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Paris Hilton: Cultural Experience?

So glad to see I'm not the only one bewailing NYT's classification of all things Paris Hilton as "arts" worthy. Kudos to one particular questioner in the paper's online Q & A with Sam ("Culture" Editor) Sifton.

Sifton's answer is worth excerpting at length:

Q.Why is anything having to do with Paris Hilton considered to belong under the heading “Arts” or “Culture?” Please extend the question to the topic of celebrity “news” in general. -- Ravenna Taylor

A. [...] The smart-aleck answer to your question is that Ms. Hilton is more than simply a celebrity. She is a veteran actress and occasional recording artist, who has written a memoir. The really smart-aleck response is that she is the preeminent performance artist of our age.
I honestly can't tell if these are jokes or not.

But seriously folks...
But the truth is, you can’t ignore the fact that some large number of Americans are absolutely fascinated by Paris Hilton; the interview she gave Larry King on CNN after she got out of jail in late June drew over 3.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen, or about three times the number of people who usually watch his show. Indeed, the news of Ms. Hilton’s arrest, jailing, release, and re-jailing this summer was almost unavoidable for anyone who consumes any sort of media in America in 2007.
Kinda begs the question of... so, why cover it more?

Oh here's why--to explain it all to us:

We have tried to explain this dissonance in our own way. As Alessandra Stanley, the chief television critic of The Times, put it in her June 29 “TV Watch” column about Ms. Hilton’s appearance on Larry King Live:

There is a bizarre countereffect to the Paris Hilton phenomenon: a little like the children’s taunt, ‘I’m rubber, you're glue,’ the sheer absurdity of her fame ensures that anyone who denigrates it looks even more foolish. It was laughable when Barbara Walters of ABC told the New York Post columnist Cindy Adams that she didn't regret not doing the first post-prison Paris Hilton interview because, as she put it, “The whole thing somehow was beneath me.”

It was delicious to watch Anderson Cooper sneer at the young celebutante's frivolity, then piggyback his show to Mr. King’s and devote an entire hour to Ms. Hilton’s jailhouse conversion. And all week, news media analysts, law professors and image consultants scuffled like paparazzi for the chance to go on television and deconstruct Ms. Hilton's latest escapade.

Love Paris Hilton or hate her, it's interesting what happened to her and around her this summer. And a newspaper ought to explore what's interesting, what's new. You can learn more at the topic page we created for Ms. Hilton here.

[link deleted--why be part of the problem]

The elite media defense dragged out in all tabloid cases--"we're not covering the story, we're covering the coverage!"--is getting tired. (C'mon Sam, that's so O.J.) As long as NYT covers trash "in our own way," I suppose, it's not trash anymore. Personally I see little difference between Stanley's supposed "meta-commentary" and Cooper's only slightly more obvious doublethink. Not to even criticize Stanley personally, it's the assigning to her of the story that immediately compromises the section.

I just want to be clear, what I think is at issue is the devotion of precious space in the paper of record's already stripped down arts section. I would respect NYT more if it simply launched a separate Celebrity or Gossip section like other more transparent publications. But to sneak in tabloid stuff under the heading of "hey, it's on tv!" thus watering down the otherwise fine efforts of your arts critics and reporters is just going to keep on turning off readers who self-identify as arts lovers.

5 comments:

The Playgoer said...

In fairness to Sifton, I should de-personalize the criticism to say that I believe he is only doing his job. To guarantee some amount of tabloid/celebrity coverage every day in (at least) the weekday Arts pages is obviously the charge of anyone who is Culture editor now.

Alison Croggon said...

Supping with the devil takes a long spoon. Still, it's been a while since I read such unmitigated self-serving rubbish!

The Playgoer said...

Sorry, 2 more quick points.

1) In response to a separate but related reader-question Sifton says, "We even write about celebrity culture. Some people love that, though none seem to be writing me at this address." So do I take it the complaints about the tabloid stories far outway the encouragements in the feedback?

Didn't newspapers used to care what their readers and subscribers thought?

2) One reason NYT may not care in this case is the advent of nyt.com. As any online writer (or blogger) knows, the mere mention of "Paris Hilton" does wonders for your hit count. (Let's see if it does here!)

Anonymous said...

I would just like to add that I followed up with another question to Mr. Sifton: if Paris Hilton is so interesting, and important enough to cover, why not in the business section of the paper, or the front section, instead of taking up space, already too limited, for art and culture?
This question was not given space or an answer.

The Playgoer said...

Good question. The more I think about this--and the more such stories I see in NYT Arts--it becomes more and more clear to me that the paper simply wants a piece of the tabloid business. It's that simple. Through "Arts, Briefly" they've manufactured a space to have their cake and eat it, too. They get to look like they're giving extra space for arts news. But it's obvious at least one or two of those slots a day HAVE to go to Lohan, Hilton, Pete Doherty, or some such flat out "Tabloid" story.... I mean today's story--he got a "warning" from his judge--was not even remotely, by any definition "news."

THe Pete Doherty stuff is the giveaway. (And he's in there again today!) He's not even in this country! Doherty's trials are not just tabloid, they're London Tabloid. So by fixing him on the NYT radar they are aiming for a piece of that market share.

If I can be even more speculative: I'm sure that during the one of the many recent editorial overhauls at NYT someone said "I don't want us to keep losing stories to the tabloids." Or to Access Hollywood, TMZ.com, etc. So they found a way to slide it in. And it's in there--in some form, even if bite-sized--each and every day.

I say it's having your cake and eating it, too because they get to LOOK like they're still about "arts" even while they're simultaneously diluting it with a steady dose of trash stories.

During one of these NYT restructurings, I heard the decision on arts coverage was: "For the reader the arts should be desert. Not spinach."

I rest my case.