In one respect, the Paris Hilton affair has been refreshing in its honesty, exposing the collective news media’s surrender to its tabloid instincts, even as they half-heartedly try clinging to the high ground. So after ABC and NBC’s amusing hissing match and sudden discovery of principles, it fell to Larry King — master of the pretend-to-throw-hard-but-pitch-softballs interview — to put a fitting coda on this latest mini-crisis in the decline of serious journalism, simultaneously knocking CNN off the “hard news” perch its brass have claimed to occupy since Anderson Cooper began emoting from tragedies.
Ultimately, nobody emerges from a stay at this Hilton unscathed, as evidenced by ABC and NBC’s skirmish over who would limbo lower to interview her. Barbara Walters can dub the episode “tawdry,” but to quote an old joke, once you’ve agreed to become a whore, everything else is just haggling over price.
Then there was the spectacle of the cable news channels all going live at 3 a.m. Eastern time to catch a glimpse of the leggy heiress strutting out of a Los Angeles jail. Fox News Channel correspondent Jonathan Hunt cracked wise about the 1944 liberation of Paris versus this one, but even instant meta-coverage amounted to little more than slathering lipstick on a pig.
Caught up in the moment of its big (albeit by default) “get,” CNN included a countdown clock during “Paula Zahn Now” leading up to what King unabashedly billed as “the interview we’ve all been waiting for.”
What we were “waiting for,” it turned out, was King stretching out about five minutes worth of interview over an hour, which meant spending an inordinate amount of time on what Hilton ate and what it’s like to have attention-deficit disorder. The experience changed her, she said, harshly made up but dressed demurely and periodically brushing away her bangs. As for the L.A. authorities: “I was treated like any other inmate — no better, no worse.”
After that, pretty much, everything was filler. Her much-speculated-about “illness” was, she stated, claustrophobia. She feels bad the media swarm inconvenienced her neighbors. Hilton read snippets from her journal that sounded like a 14-year-old girl wrote them. Shockingly, Darfur didn’t come up. Maybe next time.
In fact, the episode did little more than reinforce how absurd the media infatuation with Hilton has become, inasmuch as she isn’t particularly interesting — a pretty girl in a town loaded with them, who looks OK through a night-vision lens but doesn’t really have anything to say.
As for unasked questions, King puzzled with Hilton over her inordinate fame and notoriety but made no mention of the widely seen sex tape. The aforementioned Cooper then kept CNN in Hilton mode during his program — comically enlisting a panel to analyze King’s vacuous hour — clearly eager to benefit from the afterglow.
Granted, there’s been no shortage of hypocrisy all around, as the other cable nets — having wallowed in Hilton coverage — suddenly discovered pangs of conscience. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski dramatically refused to report on the story, tearing up her script, while on radio Sean Hannity disingenuously proclaimed his Fox News competitor to King a “Paris Hilton-free zone.”
King’s week included Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (“an incredible, even historic night,” he said then), with Colin Powell and Michael Moore (bumped to accommodate Hilton) slated to finish out the week. With that roster, the host was to be forgiven if during Hilton’s responses his mind appeared to drift, forcing him to rehash topics toward the end. Perhaps he was wondering what to order for breakfast the next morning at Nate n’ Al’s.