In defense of "fluffy" news.
Image: Kitron Neuschatz
Shortly after the news of Angelina Jolie's divorce from Brad Pitt broke on TMZ, my social media feed was full of people outraged by the idea that headlines about the split had topped other news stories. The Brangelina hashtag began trending ahead of new revelations that presidential candidate Donald Trump had used money from his charity to settle legal disputes. The consensus appeared to be that it was wrong for celebrity gossip to, well, trump Trump.
I'm not going to mince words here: This is a sanctimonious and shortsighted attitude. It's OK for people to care about stupid things. It's even OK to discuss stupid things during a protracted and excessively cringeworthy election cycle. The story about Trump's charities is indisputably important but, with all we know of him, not very surprising, and people want to talk about things that actually reshape how they see their world, whether it's profound or trivial. Furthermore, the Brangelina story resonated not only because it's a celebrity-centric narrative that dominated the tabloids for more than a decade, but because it's a welcome break from the 24-hour, doom-and-gloom news cycle, which unfortunately reflects back to us a world of police killings and political mudslinging.
It's OK for people to care about stupid things. It's even OK to discuss stupid things during a protracted and excessively cringeworthy election cycle.
Rusty Foster, author of the media-centric newsletter Today in Tabs, agrees, but beyond that, he told me that he questions whether anyone has the right to rank some stories as more "important" and "serious" than others. "One of the habits of journalists that annoys me the most is this attitude that some stories are 'vegetables,' and some are, I don't know, 'desserts'? And the vegetables are important and also boring, while the fluff is engaging and interesting but not important."
Perhaps the focus on celebrity gossip has something to do with that false dichotomy, which "leads journalists to think that covering important stories in a boring way is OK because supposedly there's no other way to do it," he said. "And it also leads them to disregard what is important about stories that are also entertaining."
For Foster, "fluffy" is an attitude, not a subject matter. Seriousness can be buried inside a subject traditionally considered trivial or irrelevant (Foster pointed to Taffy Brodesser-Akner's profile of Britney Spears as an example), and traditionally serious topics (like politics) can be covered in an entertaining way. Foster noted that British tabloids cover politics, and in a way, that resembles "wrestling and celebrity gossip, like it's good fun for all, which it is!"
Vapidity, and the public (and media) obsession with pop culture, it would seem, are not the threat; blatant lies are.
The outrage over interest in celebrity also has a tinge of elitism: It assumes a hypothetical group of tasteless people who read the magazines at the checkout counter and never look at the New York Times. But one look at a website like TMZ, which notoriously traffics in gossip, shows a front page that features critical and informative coverage of Trump.
Just because something's boring doesn't make it important. Stories resonate with people because they tap into something deeply human. Before modern celebrities, there were fables, fairy tales, and myths—gods cheating on goddesses, stepparents casting their stepchildren out into a magical forest. Perhaps the evolution of that is caring about Rob Kardashian getting Blac Chyna pregnant.
More concerning than the idea that the news people are consuming is not serious enough is the increasing prevalence of misinformation and fake news. At the end of 2015, the Washington Post ceased to run a column addressing and debunking internet hoaxes. For-profit sites dedicated to propagating fake news had popped up everywhere—it was no longer just fun and games, as the faux news stories escalated from hoaxes about new flavors of Oreos, and became actually dangerous. "Just look at some of the viral stories we've debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans," the Post wrote of the column's shuttering.
"Frankly, this column wasn't designed to address the current environment. This format doesn't make sense."
Vapidity, and the public (and media) obsession with pop culture, it would seem, are not the threat; blatant lies are. At the very least, the Brangelina saga is a true story.
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