Of celebrities, sports and TMZ
If the arrival of full-body scans at airports doesn't sound intrusive enough, consider that TMZ, the Web site dedicated to spotting celebrity gossip and scandal, is about to launch a sports unit. This surely will hasten the trend of what cultural anthropologist Orin Starn calls the "explosion of a new celebrity faux-journalism entertainment complex," of "gossip spreading like wildfire."
What TMZ feeds on - Michael Jackson's death, Mel Gibson's drunk-driving arrest and the affair du jour in Hollywood - is celebrity dirt, and the ongoing Tiger Woods frenzy is proof that big-name athletes increasingly qualify as celebrities. And thus are inviting targets for TMZ (why not TMI? - "too much information"), as true a representation of new media as anything extant.
Starn, a Duke University professor and author of the blog "Golf Politics," sees this unsettling version of 3-D programming as indicative of our "cult of youth. That's the thing athletes and movie stars have in common: Beautiful bodies and charismatic looks. No one's interested in what some retired old baseball player is doing."
He noted that, from the time professional sports emerged as a major enterprise in the United States, top players have been national celebrities. "People were interested in Babe Ruth's love life," he said. "What has changed is the new way to get celebrity gossip; it's coming at us from all directions, the explosion of TV entertainment news, new tabloids, new Web sites. It used to be you could only get this stuff in the National Enquirer."
Starn admitted to being "riveted - and I must say, somewhat appalled - by the Tiger Woods drama." The Tiger tales fit his profession's concept of the "social drama," which Starn said applies surprisingly well to the wired world and celebrity scandal.
As much as his own loutish behavior, it was Woods' off-the-scale name recognition that brought on the manic public scrutiny and served as a magnet for such rapid (and rabid) first responders as TMZ. One thing that may be happening with TMZ's expansion into the sports world - which the company insists was in the works before the Woods episode - "is that, with the celebritization of sports," Starn said, "this is a way of getting men into the demographic of buying these magazines and looking at these shows and Web sites.
"Typically, their audience has been mostly women. It makes sense for them to say, 'OK, we're going to expand our targeted demographic by creating gossip and scandal around people that men are interested in.' I have the sense that Tiger Woods is a kind of unisex scandal, the first that captures the interest of men as well as women."
Up until Woods' Thanksgiving night episode, his outlandish skill as a golfer - and the carefully constructed public-relations bubble meant to reveal nothing about him beyond golf - ensured that the rare disparagement of his image mostly was aimed at those so quick to glorify his every move. After Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open title on an ailing knee that soon would require surgery, the satiric news source The Onion posted this account under the sly headline, "Man Who Used Stick To Roll Ball Into Hole In Ground Praised For His Courage:"
"A man who used several different bent sticks to hit a ball to an area comprised of very short grass surrounding a hole in the ground was praised for his courage Monday after he used a somewhat smaller stick to gently roll the ball into the aforementioned hole in fewer attempts than his competitors. 'What guts, what confidence,' ESPN commentator Scott Van Pelt said of the man, who was evidently unable to carry his sticks himself, employing someone else to hold the sticks and manipulate the flag sticking out of the hole in the ground while he rolled the ball into it. 'You have to be so brave, so self-assured, so strong mentally to (roll a ball into a hole in the ground). Amazing.' The man in question apparently hurt his knee during this activity."
Anyone who had read Charles Pierce's 1997 profile of Woods for Esquire Magazine - a piece revealing enough of Woods' potentially damaging remarks that Woods subsequently cut off all one-on-one interviews and left the shaping of his brand to fiercely protective publicists - would have gotten plenty of hints of the embarrassment to come. But, what guaranteed that Woods' transgressions someday could belie his carefully constructed persona was our 21st Century emphasis on what Starn calls an "upward curb in our appetite for junk news.
"I think we're trapped in a vicious cycle of trash," Starn said. "If you talk to the editors of National Enquirer, they'll just say they're reporting what people want to hear. There's this idea that people have a born-in-the-cradle appetite for the latest on Angelina (Jolie). As an anthropologist, I think it's more complicated than that. We're indoctrinated into thinking celebrities matter.
"This stuff is like fast food now; it's there for the taking, and I don't think it's very good for us. All the time we spend following these scandals is part of the dumbing down of America."
Maybe the good news is that those airport scanners are not able to see what's in our heads.