Networks gets caught up in media circus

The saga of imprisoned socialite Paris Hilton dominated the news over the weekend, with some of America’s most august journalistic institutions working the celebrity justice beat.

Many couched their coverage in reports about the “media circus” or in analysis of a so-called two-tier justice system.

“Is this really about the justice system or is it just plain old pandering?” asked Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz on CNN Sunday morning, adding, “Scooter Libby is facing a lot more time than Paris.”

NBC’s “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams made a point of ignoring the brewing Hilton-mania last week when both CBS’ Katie Couric and ABC’s Charles Gibson weighed in.

“Nobody mentioned Paris Hilton at our afternoon editorial meeting,” Williams wrote in his blog on Thursday.

But by Friday, Williams jumped into the fray, devoting nearly three minutes out of his 22-minute newscast to Hilton, starting with criticism of cable news outlets that ditched a Pentagon briefing for “what was judged to be a more urgent breaking story.”

“We’re not above the news here,” an NBC News spokeswoman said.

Story proved its irresistibility long after Hilton was again behind bars. On Saturday, ABC’s “Good Morning America” led with a story about President Bush’s visit to the Pope, but then quickly turned to Hilton.

“This is the decline of Western civilization as we know it, and we’re watching it live,” TMZ.com’s Harvey Levin told “GMA.”

On Thursday, both the New York Post and the New York Daily News understandably had competing Hilton covers. But the story soon worked its way up the print-media food chain.

By Saturday, Hilton drew page-one coverage in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. “The national obsession with celebrity collided head-on with the more serious issue of the equal application of justice,” wrote N.Y. Times reporter Sharon Waxman.

Meanwhile, with cable news nets always seeking material to fill their round-the-clock skeds, the story of the hotel heiress threw red meat to the pundits, who made it a multiday obsession.

At times coverage seemed to verge on self-analysis, as cable news anchors openly questioned their own orgs’ news judgment in dwelling on the story.

“We’re not sure what upsets you more, Paris getting out of jail or the fact that we’re even covering this story,” said CNN anchor Betty Nguyen, reading viewer email. “Sometimes, yes, we scratch our heads about it, too.”

CNN’s Kyra Phillips called the net “the most trusted name in Paris news.”

The nadir of the Hilton circus began Friday afternoon, when Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer threw the book at a teary Hilton, ordering her to serve the remainder of her 45-day sentence in a tiny jail cell for violating her probation in a reckless driving case.

She shouted, “It’s not right!,” and called out to her mother, Kathy Hilton, in the courtroom.

No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, and no one had audio of Hilton’s cries, but cable news anchors were willing to improvise, performing their own renditions of the moment.

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC gave the O.J. treatment to her 13-mile drive from the courthouse to prison, all the while analyzing whether justice had been served.

“There’s a sense of vengeance here that has no bounds,” said Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera said Friday. “It’s unseemly. It’s pathetic.”

Rivera devoted his entire show to the story on Saturday on Fox News followed by another 30 minutes on “Studio B.”

Air America Radio host Rachel Maddow perhaps summed it all up: “We hate ourselves for the amount of celebrity coverage we all digest — yet we keep doing it.”

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