Character – not celebrity – should count in news and politics

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In the past few days, we've been subjected to a torrent of media mush.

To be fair, serious newspapers have either ignored it or recorded it briefly in the back pages.

But the tabloids and the cable TV channels have gone overboard in a prurient pursuit of personalities whose antics are of no real consequence and certainly have no relevance to responsible journalism.

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First there was the case of the lovesick astronaut who traveled hundreds of miles allegedly to do harm to another female astronaut, purportedly competing for the attention of a male astronaut. Astronauts are eulogized as American heroes. One could reason that there was legitimate public interest in the kind of trysting that might cause emotional problems if any combination of these astronauts might be together in space.

But then emerged bizarre stories about the manner in which the first astronaut had provided for cross-country driving without rest stops. This quickly became fodder for the late-night talk shows and the lead story on cable news stations.

Tabloids cleared their front pages for this sensation, only to be overtaken by yet another drama, the death of Anna Nicole Smith in Florida. Teeth were gnashed in the tabloids' offices as editors had to remake pages for the Smith story. One editor proclaimed proudly that he had dispatched 10 reporters to the area to cover it. That's more than most respected newspapers would send to a summit meeting between the leaders of the US, Russia, and China.

Tragic though the death was of a mother leaving behind a young baby, it was simply a vehicle for the cable stations and tabloids to display one revealing photo after another of Ms. Smith, along with lurid accounts of her lifestyle. Cable stations regurgitated the story night after night.

As if this were not enough, we then had to absorb headlines about another celebrity, Britney Spears, who impulsively sheared off her hair amid multiple visits to – and back out of – rehabilitation institutions. The stories of Smith and Ms. Spears at least eclipsed for a few days the endless publicity-seeking antics of "celebutante" Paris Hilton.

If any or all of these stories involve emotional disorder on the part of these so-called celebrities, one can only feel compassion for them. But this is even more reason for the tabloid journalists and their editors to exercise consideration and restraint.

The massive and sensational coverage such as we have seen in recent days feeds a currently questionable fascination in American society with personalities rich, famous, allegedly glamorous, and often outrageous.

People are interested in people. But is it beyond reason that journalists should seek out people who have lived lives of selfless achievement, people who have expanded their horizons to accomplish the unthinkable, people who have colorful but useful occupations, people who have bravely escaped from oppression, or who have overcome tragedies?

As we head – much earlier than makes sense – into a presidential election campaign, Americans will quite properly be judging the character and personality of the candidates. Glitz and glamour should not be the yardstick.

Many of the candidates will be seeking big money and endorsements from big names in Hollywood. I understand the money part, but I've never understood why an endorsement from a pop star, rather than a Nobel Prize-winner or a great statesman, should carry much credibility.

Recently, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published remarks by Hollywood "titan" David Geffen that were harshly critical of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Geffen, once a proud supporter of the Clintons, is now helping to raise funds for Senator Clinton's chief campaign rival, Sen. Barack Obama.

Though the two candidates have vowed to run pristinely high-road campaigns, their spokesmen are firing various unpleasantries at each other. The Clinton camp has even gone so far as to demand that Senator Obama renounce Geffen and return the substantial funding that Geffen has sent his way. That is about as fanciful a demand as could be made in any major election known to man.

There is a certain irony in all this. A Hollywood titan Geffen may be, but my guess is that 9 out of 10 Americans have never heard of him, nor care very much whom he endorses. The Hollywood moguls, producers, and directors who do much to shape our culture – for better or worse – on the movie screens and on television, may not be as successful in shaping the direction of US politics, however influential they may imagine themselves to be.

We the people, and not the titans of showbiz, determine the outcome of elections.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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