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.