Saturday, March 04, 2006
FOR DISCUSSION: Is "star" coverage journalism? We need to consider
As we consider the future of journalism, we can't ignore the impact of
star coverage, well documented by this Wall Street Journal story:
Saturday, March 4, 2006; Page A1
Caught in the Act: How Hollywood's bold-faced names
secretly steer the celebrity news machine.
By JOE HAGAN and MERISSA MARR
The Wall Street Journal
At tomorrow night's Academy Awards, celebrities will smile and turn as they parade down the red carpet before a phalanx of cameras. Behind the flashbulbs, a delicate new game is under way between the stars and the vast gossip industry of TV shows, magazines and Web sites that feeds upon them.It has always been a relationship built upon animosity and mutual need. But tensions have grown with the explosion of media running paparazzi photos of stars canoodling or emerging from coffee shops in frumpy track suits.
Now many stars including Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Jessica Simpson are fighting back. They are hiring their own photographers to capture supposedly private rendezvous, tipping off reporters to their whereabouts and developing relationships of mutual back-scratching with magazine editors.The result is the flowering of a genre: fake paparazzi journalism, or the staging of "unstaged" moments. It is an art form that benefits both stars and the press. Stars get to participate in the framing of their image and magazines appear to give readers a glimpse of the real celebrity untouched by public-relations varnish.
When Ms. Paltrow gave birth in 2004, she knew there would be a high bounty on the first photo of her newborn daughter. A staple of the celebrity press, the actress and her husband, Chris Martin, leader of the band coldplay, decided to take matters into their own hands and tip off a photographer they knew, Steve Sands.Mr. Sands took what appeared to be surprise shots of the two emerging from the hospital in London with the baby and sold them to People for $125,000, according to a person familiar with the arrangement. Larry Hackett, managing editor of People, says he knew that Mr. Sands had been tipped off by Ms. Paltrow. But he didn't see the need to inform readers about it. "I just don't know how illuminating it is," he says.
Stephen Huvane, a publicist at public-relations firm PMK/HBH who handles Ms. Paltrow, confirms Mr. Sands's account. "You'll see a lot more of that happening," says Mr. Huvane.
Pictures such as the one of Ms. Paltrow help the stars stay in the limelight -- but on their terms. "When celebrities do this, it's a way for them to deliver news that they want delivered," says Bonnie Fuller, the editorial director of American Media Inc., which publishes Star and the National Enquirer. By strategically sating the demand for images, stars may be able to tame the paparazzi mob -- although in Ms. Paltrow's case, photographers continued to stake out her home for shots of her and the baby.
The current strategies hark back to the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s, when studios, movie stars and the press worked hand-in-hand to create and maintain screen icons for worshipful fans. Today, the coverage of the stars has exploded. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, circulation of US Weekly stood at an average of 1,662,000 in the six months ending in January of this year, up 12.7% from the same period a year earlier. Circulation at Bauer Publishing's InTouch climbed 15.5% to 1,178,000, and at Star rose 12.3% to 1,460,000.The magazines are lucrative. US Weekly sells a million copies a week on the newsstand at $3.49 apiece. The magazine turns an operating profit of $50 million a year, says a person familiar with its accounts. People, which has a circulation of 3.8 million, brings in by far the most revenue and profit of any of the 154 magazines owned by Time Inc., a division of Time Warner Inc.
Network TV programs like Access Hollywood, cable channels like E! Entertainment Television Inc. and Web sites have added to the coverage. All these outlets compete for photos documenting the daily lives of a small cast of celebrities. These stars, in turn, seek to control their images without appearing to, because doing so would ruin their mystique."All those dirty little secrets in Hollywood include tipping paparazzi off and playing games with them," says New York-based public-relations professional Ken Sunshine, whose clients include corporations and stars such as Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio. He says people might find that "unethical" if they knew about it, "but unfortunately it seems to be an accepted part of the business."
Magazines have generally played along. In 2003, Ms. Jolie tipped off US Weekly that she would appear in a park one afternoon with her adopted son, Maddox, according to two people familiar with the situation. The actress had recently divorced actor Billy Bob Thornton, a relationship which was portrayed as reckless and bizarre. These two people say US Weekly knew Ms. Jolie had green-lighted the photo, which softened her image by showing her maternal side. However, the magazine didn't tell readers about it. Repeated calls to Ms. Jolie's manager for comment were not returned. Mr. Hackett of People says Ms. Jolie, who does not have a publicist, is among the most sophisticated manipulators of the press. "She is totally, totally using it," he says. "I think that's brilliant."
Even images that are clearly taken with a star's consent may conceal deeper ties between the star and the media. Ms. Simpson, a pop singer, had a close relationship with US Weekly, but it became contentious after the magazine broke the news that she was breaking up with husband Nick Lachey, who starred with Ms. Simpson in a reality-TV show. Ms. Simpson formed a business relationship with OK! USA, a weekly published by London-based Northern & Shell PLC that sometimes pays celebrities for access and lets them approve magazine layouts. The deal with Ms. Simpson requires the star to appear in the magazine a certain number of times in exchange for payment, according to the magazine. A publicist for Ms. Simpson declined to comment.
In the old studio era, too, celebrities and the press were co-conspirators in crafting storylines that were often distant from reality. A famous instance was Rock Hudson, who despite being secretly gay was publicly married to Phyllis Gates. By the 1960s, when Marilyn Monroe's tragic life became a public drama and television dimmed the pre-eminence of Hollywood movies, the media grew beyond its role as a publicity mouthpiece. A raft of tabloids began publishing more sensational stories that claimed to get around the glossy images projected by the studios. These tabloids had titles like "Hollywood Confidential," "Hush-Hush," "Inside Story" and "The Lowdown."
People magazine, introduced in 1974, combined celebrity coverage with the journalistic heritage of parent Time Inc. For years People was the only publication of its kind and an essential tool for celebrities to promote their careers. "There was a lot more access then," says Susan Toepfer, a former deputy managing editor at People who is now editor in chief of Quick & Simple. "When I was writing about celebrities in the '70s and '80s, you could spend days with them." But magazines soon discovered that so-called write-arounds, stories written without the cooperation of the star and using anonymous sources, were more popular. The stories were juicier and the stars seemed more human. In 1991, for instance, People published stories such as "The Big Breakup!" detailing the relationship between Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland, and the next year the magazine did an expose called "Plastic Surgery Of The Stars."In response, the celebrities and their handlers circled the wagons. Pu!
blicists began forcing reporters to sign agreements to avoid certain topics or demanding approval over writers and cover layouts.
In 1992, the editors of People gathered in Aspen, Colo., to discuss what was working and what wasn't, recalls Jack Kelley, a former Los Angeles bureau chief for the magazine. Cover stories written with a celebrity's cooperation had a newsstand "sell-through" of 49.3%, meaning about half of the copies distributed to newsstands got sold. Write-arounds had a sell-through of 67.4%. "It was kind of a no-brainer," says Mr. Kelley. "At that point, we decided we weren't going to worry so much about cooperation. We were going to approach celebrity reporting like any reporting."
The arrival of Ms. Fuller at US Weekly in 2002 raised the tensions even higher. She pioneered the photography-heavy coverage popular today, and paid for paparazzi photos depicting the stars in an unflattering light. A recent example was the image of singer Britney Spears driving down a freeway with her baby in her lap. It appeared in Star magazine, which Ms. Fuller now supervises in her post at American Media.
A new generation of "stalkarazzi" has specialized in capturing awkward moments. Mr. Sunshine, the New York publicist, recalls one occasion when he went to the bathroom with a client. "We were about to go to the urinal," he says, "and someone pointed to a stall half-opened. I pushed the door open and there was a guy with a long lens in there about to take a photo." This year California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that attempts to crack down on stalkarazzi.The photographers' onslaught has put stars in a tough spot. If they ignore the magazines, they let such pictures define their public image. But sitting down for formulaic interviews and staged publicity shots won't necessarily satisfy the magazines' lust for juicy stories.The answer is manipulation so subtle it's hard to say if there's any manipulation at all. In January, when rumors swirled in the press that Ms. Jolie might be pregnant with the child of actor Brad Pitt, Ms. Jolie arranged for an employee of the!
charity Yéle Haiti to take a picture of her with her growing belly.
Ms. Jolie then let Yéle Haiti sell the picture to People, according to Mr. Hackett, the magazine's managing editor, and a representative for Mr. Pitt. A person familiar with the situation says People paid $400,000 for the picture. It appeared on the cover of the magazine with the headline: "Angelina Reveals: 'Yes, I'm Pregnant.' " (The incident was first reported by The New York Post.)By arranging the Haiti photo, Ms. Jolie reaped several benefits. She ensured the picture was flattering. In diverting the money to charity, she put a twist on a tactic used by celebrities in recent years in which they arrange to be paid for wedding or baby photos with the proceeds going to charity. And Ms. Jolie reminded fans of her devotion to humanitarian causes. She had taken a hit months earlier when she struck up a relationship with Mr. Pitt shortly after his marriage to actress Jennifer Aniston broke up.
In many cases, stars don't need to try that hard. When celebrities pick a location like the terrace at the Ivy restaurant in Beverly Hills, they know they're liable to appear in the glossies the next week. A bank of photographers regularly sits on the other side of the street with long-range lenses. Actor Tom Cruise was thus captured on film last year when he roared up to the Ivy on his motorcycle accompanied by then-new girlfriend Katie Holmes.Similarly, when speculation was mounting about Mr. Cruise's romance with actress Penelope Cruz after his breakup with Nicole Kidman, the new couple showed up for lunch at the Beverly Hills restaurant Spago. Photographer Steve Granitz, who has photographed Mr. Cruise regularly since 1981, says he got a tip about the couple's presence. When Mr. Granitz arrived with his camera, Mr. Cruise and Ms. Cruz emerged from the doorway, smiled and kissed. The images, which looked like standard-issue paparazzi shots, were published in nearly all th!
e celebrity magazines that week.
"I would probably say at least 50% of what you see in terms of Hollywood coverage is something that was not necessarily born organically," says Janice Min, editor in chief of US Weekly. "This is a totally symbiotic relationship. This is how celebrities survive."
Write to Joe Hagan at firstname.lastname@example.org and Merissa Marr at
Copyright 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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