After watching the media circus that's gone on with Paris Hilton, the thought occurred to me that our society is in danger of crossing a very important line: confusing reality TV shows and the lives of celebrities and the famous with real life and real consequences.
[This is not limited to America. The other night Channel 4 in Great Britain aired a show about the late Princess Diana and over the protests of her surviving children, the princes, showed photos of her last moments. A great debate ensued about whether the princes had a "right to object" and some people argued that celebrities lose privacy rights when they choose to place themselves in a public light. However, in the case of the princes, I would say that they were born into a celebrity status- I don't recall either Prince William or Prince Harry choosing the constant media attention. So that argument just doesn't seem to work there.]
Many feel there is a difference when celebrities choose to be in the public light. Part of why they are paid a lot of money, it is said, is because we the public are buying rights into private aspects of their lives that those of us who are not celebrities retain. And now, with the recent explosion of reality TV shows, there has been further encroachment of the rights of everyone. Cameras have gone further filming private aspects of lives, private conversations, private events and on and on than ever before. We now have 24 hour news stations, the internet, YouTube, etc. which all add to more coverage and quicker coverage than ever before. We have less privacy than ever before.
But have we stopped to think about how our use of technology is affecting privacy issues? Not enough, I don't think . We seem to be like Uncle Bill who had the first Polaroid camera and spent the entire vacation snapping shots of everything in sight because it was just so cool until portly Aunt Tilly smashed the Polaroid and tossed it into the lake after he took a photo of her thighs in her swimsuit.
Some reality TV shows have left me asking "Is this entertainment or voyeurism?" And what is the fallout for the people who are filmed? For example, after Ozzy Osbourne's family was filmed, including during a time when his wife was undergoing cancer treatment, three family members wound up in rehabilitation. Anna Nicole Smith's willingness to allow filming of her private life also ended in tragedy with drug use and the death of her son. Then there's the constant stalking of celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and others. Do we need to see their addictive behaviors plastered all over?
I can't say these things would not have happened without the media coverage, but then again, isn't there an even better question here - why are we watching these people in the first place? It's not as if we're going to learn anything from these folks, especially positive. It's disturbing to see celebrities' lives turned into entertainment when they face serious problems and tragedies. It puts money in the pockets of the media , pundits and photographers but distracts the public from more serious issues.
Media attention on Paris Hilton's hearing eclipsed coverage of a massive computer outage that affected most plane flights to the East Coast (as well as every other major news story). Almost apologetically, a newscaster broke away from Paris coverage to mention the outage and explain that if you planned on flying, you'd better check with your airline. Then it was back to the media circus about the star of the Simple Life whose real life has suddenly become not so simple. Paris is just the celebrity du jour - months ago it was Anna Nicole Smith or it could be any of a number of others pulled out of the rabbit hat.
What is happening to Paris is not a reality TV show. It's sad that someone who could be a role model and has had every advantage in life made poor choices landing her in trouble. That, in the end, is something useful to be learned. But those lessons can get lost in the turmoil of constant media coverage.
Maybe, if nothing else, all of this is a reminder that none of our lives are simple, especially when we make bad choices.