In the wake of Justin Bieber’s arrest on DUI and drag racing charges, Al Jazeera America issued a press release somewhat high-handedly noting that while it was covering stories like Syria and Edward Snowden, it had not reported on the pop star’s legal troubles.
As business decisions go, good luck with that.
Frankly, in an era driven by ratings and traffic, it’s hard to blame cable networks for lustily going after Bieber’s latest run-in with authorities. Sure, it’s not big news, but it is newsworthy, inasmuch as the singer is a well-known public figure, and celebrity is a legitimate facet of news. From a commercial perspective, something like Bieber is low-hanging fruit, and if news operations help pay the bills in part by pandering to those prurient interests, it’s hard to say they’re wrong — or misreading the public’s appetite.
The question, as always, is one of perspective, which was certainly absent on HLN, where Jane Velez-Mitchell hosted no less than six attorneys to debate the merits of the case — seriously, they all went to law school to wind up doing this? — and Nancy Grace, practically breathing fire out of her nostrils, immediately began probing whether it would be possible to have Bieber deported.
The silliness didn’t end there. CNN’s Don Lemon featured former child stars Barry Williams (“The Brady Bunch”) and Corey Feldman (via phone, alas) to discuss the Bieber situation, helping the audience overtly process the young adult’s troubles through the prism of Hollywood kids steeped in temptation. Clearly considering the matter somewhat beneath him, Bill O’Reilly brought in his lead-out, Megyn Kelly, to fleetingly discuss Bieber, with the elder host suggesting the pop figure was in danger of winding up like Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, names which will mean a lot more to the Fox News audience than any of Bieber’s fans. (To be fair, O’Reilly opened the show with his favorite topic — himself, and the fact he would be interviewing President Obama before the Super Bowl.)
Arguments for Bieber coverage: one of the biggest stars on the planet. People care. Allegations are serious – drugs, etc. "What went wrong?"
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 23, 2014
CNN’s “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter turned his Twitter feed into an ongoing debate about the propriety of the Bieber news (he even recirculated one from the fictional anchor of HBO’s “The Newsroom”), but he needn’t have bothered. A story like Bieber’s legal troubles — with all the juicy parallels it instantly evokes — is simply too good to resist.
All one can ask in these situations is for a little sobriety, balance and proportion, and perhaps some acknowledgement of such a story’s relative importance — or lack thereof — in the bigger scheme of things.
Not that asking will make any of those things happen, of course. The battle against TV’s tabloid impulses has pretty much been fought and lost. But to quote another fictional character who knew a little something about excess, isn’t it pretty to think so?