Charlie Sheen Turns Entertainment Journalism Into a Circus Again

Earlier this year the prevailing cry was “Je suis Charlie,” expressing solidarity with the provocative French magazine Charlie Hebdo in the wake of a terrorist attack. Thanks once again to Charlie Sheen, the more appropriate chant today would be “I am the National Enquirer,” or “I am Harvey Levin.”

Sheen’s admission that he is HIV positive, confirmed on the “Today” show after reports in the Enquirer and Levin’s TMZ, is by any measure news. Not only is Sheen a well-known celebrity, but there’s an obvious if unattractive element of schadenfreude in seeing somebody who crowed so proudly about his hedonistic lifestyle and “Tiger’s blood” receive some kind of cosmic wakeup call. It resonates with America’s puritanical streak, while offering an opportunity to renew safe-sex warnings.

Still, the coverage of Sheen — and just as significantly, the response to it, based on Web traffic and ratings data — is a sad referendum on just how much the line between what was once dismissed as tabloid journalism and entertainment news has blurred, if not been eradicated. When more traditional outlets (especially the ones with print components) are compelled by commercial considerations to cover a story like this more aggressively than they used to, it’s a sign of how that slippery slope can become one long slog into the mud.

And yes, before anyone uses the word “hypocrite,” guilty as charged. Just putting another headline into the ether with Sheen’s name in it inevitably feels like a bid for attention, a means to pad one’s stats. If journalism were a fantasy sports league, Charlie Sheen would always be a No. 1 draft pick.

Today,” clearly, reflected this on Tuesday, repeatedly teasing its Sheen exclusive through 40 minutes of coverage about terrorism and tornadoes before getting to the main event, Matt Lauer’s sit-down with the actor. “I release myself from this prison today,” Sheen said, referring to those who had extorted money from him because of his condition. Meanwhile, Lauer was left to ask questions about what information Sheen had shared with his sexual partners, and when he had told them — something that will no doubt be a focus of related interviews in the days to come.

In the near term, at least, Sheen has seemingly traded his prison for a circus, one tailor-made not just to cable news but programs like “The View” and “The Talk.” On the former’s “Hot Topics” segment, the hosts expressed sympathy for Sheen’s condition while using him as a cautionary tale regarding the need to engage in safe sex.

Sheen’s erratic behavior has long been media catnip. Back when the actor publicly feuded with the producers of “Two and a Half Men,” he went on a sort-of media tour, including stops with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and sports-radio hosts Dan Patrick and Pat O’Brien, who conducted softball interviews. In response to a question from Lauer, Sheen said he hoped the media coverage going forward would be “a lot more forgiving and a lot more supportive” than what has already been in the tabloids, and one suspects that it will be.

Yet whatever the tone of the coverage, there will almost certainly be a lot of it, driven by the public’s easily measurable appetite for such stories. In that respect, we might not all be Charlie, but we are complicit in the media coverage we get. And in the digital age, that seldom leads media standards in a “winning” direction.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth WarrenSecond 2020

    ABC News Sets Moderators, Rules for Third Democratic Debate

    ABC News has announced the moderators for the third Democratic debate, as well as the qualification rules. The debate will be held on Thursday, Sept. 12, and will spill over to Friday, Sept. 13 if more than 10 candidates qualify. The moderating team will consist of chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, “World News Tonight” anchor and [...]

  • James Corden Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke

    James Corden Got a Little Help From Paul McCartney on His Drive to the Emmys

    Saying “Baby, I could drive your car” has proven to be a very good strategy for James Corden — never more so than when he put Paul McCartney into the highly sought passenger seat. The primetime special “Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney, Live From Liverpool” is a contender in five Emmy categories this year, [...]

  • Starz Logo

    Starz Orders Horror Comedy Pilot 'Shining Vale'

    Starz has put out a pilot order for “Shining Vale,” a horror comedy which hails from “Divorce” creator Sharon Horgan and “Trial & Error” co-creator Jeff Astrof. The prospective series is about a dysfunctional family that moves from the city to a small town into a house in which terrible atrocities have taken place. But no one [...]

  • Bethenny Frankel at the showtime Emmy

    Bethenny Frankel to Exit 'Real Housewives of New York' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bethenny Frankel is stepping away from the “Real Housewives” franchise. Variety has learned exclusively that Frankel is poised to exit Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York” ahead of its upcoming twelfth season. Frankel first joined the acclaimed reality series back when it premiered back in 2008 before exiting the series in 2010 during the [...]

  • Dolly Parton

    BBC Commissions Dolly Parton Feature Documentary

    The BBC has commissioned a feature length documentary about country music legend Dolly Parton, it announced Wednesday. The documentary, tentatively titled “Dolly’s Country” will air on BBC Two this fall as part of a season of programs dedicated to country music. The broadcaster announced earlier in the day that it had acquired Ken Burns’ upcoming [...]

  • UCP to Develop Ann Shen’s 'Bad

    UCP to Develop Ann Shen’s 'Bad Girls Throughout History' as Anthology Series

    Universal Content Productions (UCP) is developing an anthology series based on Ann Shen’s book “Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World.” The project will be titled “Bad Girls,” with each episode featuring a different influential woman throughout history, including famous figures like Ada Lovelace, Rosa Parks, Mata Hari, and Ruth Bader [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content