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"We're Talking About TMZ, Which Is A Third-Rate Gossip Site": CNN's Carol Costello, Internet Expert

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On Sunday's "Reliable Sources," Howie Kurtz discussed the recent brou-ha-ha over Jennifer Love Hewitt and the unflattering bikini shots of her published on TMZ (well, it was more recent last weekend when it was discussed on Fox News Watch! Just sayin'). Kurtz discussed the matter with CNN's Carol Costello and Star Editor-at-Large Julia Allison. While Allison's web-savvy (and, er, awareness of female body image in the media) are well-documented, Costello seemed a bit less than familiar with the current state of the gossip bloggerati:

COSTELLO: We're talking about TMZ, which is a third-rate gossip site. We're not talking about any magazine of any heft. We're talking about male bloggers who posted...

ALLISON: But that is what people read.

COSTELLO: ... who posted blogs anonymously poking fun at Jennifer Love Hewitt. We're not talking about "People" magazine.

ALLISON: Well, and "People" magazine talked about the situation. Obviously, it was interesting enough for them to debate it.

Cut, meanwhile, to the Hewitt bikini shot on the cover of People magazine. Oops. Never mind that the post in question was authored by "TMZ Staff" and TMZ has a growing staff of both men and women — many of whom hold management positions, according to TMZ rep Carolyn Fenton — as befits a growing burgeoning breaking-news gossip website often referred to as a "juggernaut" with scoops that are routinely used (and duly credited) by all the cablers, CNN included. But, thanks for the expertise, Carol!

Costello also didn't have much pity for Hewitt or her privacy concerns, calling her a "hypocrite" and raising her appearance on the cover of "Maxim" magazine "in very sexual poses":

She's the one that objectified herself.... Had she never appeared on that kind of magazine, perhaps she wouldn't be garnering the attention that she is right now. I mean, doesn't she deserve those comments if she puts herself out there as an object?

Hmm. That rang a faint bell, and reminded us of the last time we'd seen Costello on "Reliable Sources" — in October, talking about the pressures on TV newswomen to look good.

KURTZ: Carol Costello, have you had that reaction, where somebody has seen you and, rather than focusing on the report that you did, it was more about how you were wearing your hair or what -- what dress you were wearing that day?

COSTELLO: Absolutely -- I absolutely have fought that through my career. People write in all the time about what my hair looks like. But you know what? I'm a really good reporter, and I prove that every day in "THE SITUATION ROOM". And I don't feel that my career has been defined by the way I look.

and

KURTZ: Carol Costello, 20 seconds. Do you find it insulting that you feel like you're being graded this way, despite your obvious journalistic credentials?

COSTELLO: Yes, I do feel insulted. You know, I feel insulted by all these web sites who say they talk about the news business, yet they have a hottie list. And somehow they have to rank women according to their hotness in the news business. I really don't get things like that. And that, to me, is offensive.

Okay so wait: Both Jennifer Love Hewitt and Carol Costello have jobs where they are seen on-camera, where, yes, there is a non-visual skill set involved but where their looks are — regrettably or not — part of the package. But why is it that when Jennifer Love Hewitt complains of unwanted attention she asked for it, but when Costello complains of the same thing it's "offensive"? Now look, obviously there is a difference between the proportion of the job that is hotness-dependent — clearly JLH does put herself out there as a woman of physical charms — but, well, Costello is in TV, not print. And in order to do her job she needs to spend time in hair and makeup. So while the two examples may not be strictly analogous, there is definitely a correlation.

What Costello does here, ironically, is dismiss Hewitt's argument based entirely on the notion that she "deserved" it — rather than examining it on the merits (what are the bounds of privacy, and does the media push them, and does the media push an unforgiving body image stereotype?). Basically, Costello committed the same sin that she hates having committed against her: Refusing to acknowledge — and separate — the image from the substance.

Even more ironically, in this segment Costello was paired with a TV talking head who, I think it's fair to say, represents the, uh, flip side of what she's going for:

COSTELLO: OK, I have felt pressure to be attractive on the news, but there is a difference being attractive on the air and using your sexuality to sell the news... Short skirts. Crossing and uncrossing their legs. Glossy lipstick. I mean, you look at some on the air, and I'm talking nationwide, and they're dressing more like they're going out to a disco instead of, like, delivering important news of the day to educate the public. And I think that's wrong.

Let's put it this way: Of all the things Julia Allison has been accused of, wearing long skirts is not one of them. Yet it was Allison whose comments were the most interesting and insightful here, noting that the flipside is that the internet allows celebrities to wrest back a measure of control over their image, posting their own comments, photos, and videos without relying on the media middleman to parse, frame and edit. And, while Costello claimed she was "sick and tired" of nubile celebs who complained about the scrutiny, Allison tried to deconstruct the standards of attractiveness at play. Put plainly, Costello was bested by one of those so-called TV sexpots...on the merits. (And that is without the Barbie analogy.)

Like most things, this issue is not black and white. But just as it is unreasonable to expect to go on air and not be evaluated in some way on your appearance — sorry, that's the medium, Richard Nixon didn't like it either — it is also unreasonable to assume that going on air means you can ONLY be evaluated on appearance, or that all such evaluations are fair, and justified, and "deserved." This counts for hot himbo stud anchorpeople like Howie Kurtz too, y'know. What can I say, it's a tough biz.

Full excerpts from both programs after the jump.

NB: Full disclosure — I am friends with Allison but that's not why I thought her points were smart — I made the same one the week before on Fox News Watch. Judge me, my looks and my substance here. Though please note that the entire segment was shot from an invasive, unflattering angle, and I plan to blog about it.



From "Reliable Sources," Dec. 16, 2007:

KURTZ: You know the drill -- the paparazzi take surreptitious pictures of the bikini-clad starlet and they end up on the gossip site TMZ. This time the quarry was Jennifer Love Hewitt vacationing with her fiance in Hawaii, and the snarky headline, "We know what you ate this summer, love -- everything."

The actress suffered plenty of online ridicule because she appeared to have put on a few extra pounds. And that catapulted the story to the cover of "People" magazine.

But look at that picture. Doesn't she look normal? Wouldn't most men love to date someone who looks like this?

Jennifer Love Hewitt hit back on her Web site. She complained about photographers taking invasive pictures from bad angles and added, "Like all women out there should, I love my body."

Joining us now to talk about the way media portray women and the whole issue of body image, from Toledo, Ohio, Carol Costello, Washington-based correspondent for CNN's "THE SITUATION ROOM." And in New York, Julia Allison, editor-at-large for "Star" magazine.

Julia Allison, do you have any problem with the paparazzi messing up Jennifer Love Hewitt's vacation, or is this the world we live in and she ought to just get used to it?

JULIA ALLISON, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "STAR" MAGAZINE: No, no, I really don't think the discussion should be about that, because I honestly think that, first of all, TMZ apologized. I don't know if you know that.

KURTZ: I do know that.

ALLISON: I think that their comments were inappropriate, but I think the real story here is the fact that the media prior to this controlled all dissemination of information about celebrities. But now we have celebrities able to come out on their own blogs and do their own thing, and actually counteract stuff like this, which is really powerful.

KURTZ: Carol Costello, who is joining us by phone because the satellite truck we were going to use in Ohio apparently is under 10 feet of snow, what do you think of Jennifer Love Hewitt fighting back on her blog? It's an interesting wrinkle in the debate about how celebrities are covered.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, come on, Howie. The first thought that entered my mind was that Jennifer Love Hewitt was being a hypocrite. I mean, this is a young woman who appeared on the cover of "Maxim" magazine in a little saloon girl outfit in very sexual poses, and her body looked amazing, like no body any young woman could achieve.

And now she's coming out and she's upset because people are poking fun at her backside, which appears to be a little heavier than it was in "Maxim.:" I mean, she's the one that objectified herself.

Had she never appeared on that kind of magazine, perhaps she wouldn't be garnering the attention that she is right now. I mean, doesn't she deserve those comments if she puts herself out there as an object?

KURTZ: So you're saying this is what she was selling, and if this is how she markets herself to the public, then she opens the door to people to make fun of her if suddenly she's not quite as svelte.

COSTELLO: You betcha. You betcha.

I'm so sick and tired of women appearing half-naked on the covers of magazines, and then saying to young girls, you know, I love my body. And then when someone pokes fun at them for something, they turn around and they get angry about it. I mean, come off it!

ALLISON: But excuse me, it is not professional for media to have comments like, "I know what you ate last summer"? I mean really? Is that appropriate?

COSTELLO: We're talking about TMZ, which is a third-rate gossip site. We're not talking about any magazine of any heft. We're talking about male bloggers who posted...

ALLISON: But that is what people read.

COSTELLO: ... who posted blogs anonymously poking fun at Jennifer Love Hewitt. We're not talking about "People" magazine.

ALLISON: Well, and "People" magazine talked about the situation. Obviously, it was interesting enough for them to debate it.

But I don't think that that -- I mean, I really don't think that that's the big question here. The question is, should the media be snarky and then have celebrities come out and say, you know what, that's appropriate? The celebrities are chiding the media. That's a really interesting position for them to be in. KURTZ: You know, TMZ is an incredibly popular entertainment Web site. And I don't know who is buying all these magazines with pictures of half-naked women. I can't imagine.

But let me throw this back to you, Julia. Let's broaden it just a little bit.

Don't the entertainment media, almost sort of in concert with the fashion industry, send the message, at least if you're famous and a starlet and all of that, that you've got to look anorexic to be attractive?

ALLISON: I wouldn't say anorexic. I do think that they send the message that you better look good, yes. I mean, I think people -- let's be honest.

KURTZ: But looking good. Let me break in. Looking good, who defines what's looking good? Is looking good...

ALLISON: Biology.

KURTZ: ... you know, fitting into a size 2 that is beyond the reach of most women?

ALLISON: You know, you said, "Who defines what's looking good?" I think that in general, people who are healthy, who are fit.

I don't think that anyone thought Calista Flockhart during her anorexic years was attractive. I think that people find Jennifer Love Hewitt extremely attractive. To point out the fact that she has flaws I think is the only reason that the media has done, is because in a certain sense, I think they're jealous.

KURTZ: Jealous. OK.

Well, we just put up some pictures, so you both know of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie looking like they eat about once a week.

Carol...

COSTELLO: May I interject something?

KURTZ: Please.

COSTELLO: Just about how, you know, people are staring at celebrities and wishing they looked just like them? Remember a few years ago when the Barbie doll controversy was swirling around, when little girls playing with Barbie and her unbelievable measurements would strive one day to have a teeny, tiny waist and a very large bust and these lush plastic hips because of the way their Barbie doll looked?

Well, you know, I just don't buy that. I was sent out to do a story on that very thing, and I was talking to a group of 5-year-old girls who were all holding their Barbie dolls. And I asked them -- you know, first of all, what do you ask a 5- year-old about a Barbie doll? So I said, you know, "Do you think Barbie's pretty?" Yeah, yeah, they answered me.

I said, "Well, do you think Barbie's skinny?" And they all said yeah." "Do you want to look like Barbie?" And when I asked them when they wanted to look like Barbie, one of them inadvertently pulled the head off one Barbie doll.

And we all started laughing hysterically...

KURTZ: OK.

COSTELLO: ... because that's the way girls are looking at Barbie dolls at that age, as something to play with.

KURTZ: All right. Let me go back to Julia. I've got about 20 seconds.

You seem to object to the snarky tone of online gossip sites, but that's the blogosphere for you.

ALLISON: Yes, I think it is. I think it's immature.

But you know what? I think that the celebrities are going to -- once they figure out that they can blog, that they can post videos -- if Britney Spears posted a video right now on YouTube, if she chose to do that and said, you know what? I'm sick of all of the crap that I've been getting, everyone in America would watch that. And that's powerful.

KURTZ: All right. Got to go.

COSTELLO: May I just leave you with one thing?

KURTZ: We've got to go, sorry.

Carol Costello, Julia Allison, thanks for enlightening us.

And Julia, call me up when that video is posted.

From "Reliable Sources," Oct. 21, 2007:

KURTZ: It is a subject much debated in private but rarely in public. Do women have to be good looking to make it in television news? Do they have to undergo extensive makeovers, and join the parade of fake blondes to remain competitive?

In the new issue of "Elle" magazine, Maggie Bullock writes, "Consider industry race horses like Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Ann Curry, Campbell Brown, Paula Zahn and Meredith Vieira. A seasoned, impressive bunch, to be sure, and not an Ugly Betty among them. TV anchors face an amplified version of a dilemma shared by most modern thinking women: how to craft an image that is at once authoritative and attractive."

Joining our discussion now to help us take on this thorny subject, Carol Costello, Washington-based correspondent for CNN's "THE SITUATION ROOM". And she's in New York this morning.

All right, girlfriend. Let's put it out on the table. Is this the kind of pressure to look young, to look good, look sexy that women in TV news inevitably face?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK, I have felt pressure to be attractive on the news, but there is a difference being attractive on the air and using your sexuality to sell the news.

And I think that many women in the news business right now have drank the Kool-Aid and said, "You know what? I can't beat them, so why not just join them?" And they're overtly using their sexuality to sell the news. And I think that's hurting women in the business overall.

KURTZ: How exactly do they do that?

COSTELLO: Short skirts. Crossing and uncrossing their legs. Glossy lipstick. I mean, you look at some on the air, and I'm talking nationwide, and they're dressing more like they're going out to a disco instead of, like, delivering important news of the day to educate the public. And I think that's wrong.

KURTZ: But now of course, they are trying to make it in a very tough, competitive marketplace. You know, is it a coincidence that so many female anchors are making themselves blonde, and many of them are tall and thin and look like models? I mean, who's hiring these women? Right?

COSTELLO: Yes, OK. Men are hiring them. And yes, men do put pressure on women in news to look attractive.

But when you look at the women who have the most successful shows on television, they aren't necessarily beautiful. Are they? I mean, Nancy Grace is very successful, but she doesn't use her sexuality to sell her show. She uses what's up here. She uses her shtick.

If you look Greta Van Susteren on FOX, who has a very successful show, she certainly doesn't use her sexuality to sell what she's got.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, let's take Katie Couric as an example, you know, an experienced interviewer, former Pentagon reporter. And yet, she gets picked apart by some critics about her hair, her wardrobe, and her social life in a way that Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson said they don't have to worry about.

SAUNDERS: The dirty little secret of being a woman on television, people will tell me, if I was good or bad on this show, based on how I looked. What I said won't even matter. And this goes back to -- remember Christine Craft, who got fired because she was too old, too ugly and not deferential to men? So I don't think anything's changed for women in television. They've got to have a certain kind of look.

And now we're trying to get news women to be younger and sexier. And it's only getting worse. And of course we have this technology that can do everything to anti-age you. So getting older is, I think, really tough for women in TV.

KURTZ: Carol Costello, have you had that reaction, where somebody has seen you and, rather than focusing on the report that you did, it was more about how you were wearing your hair or what -- what dress you were wearing that day?

COSTELLO: Absolutely -- I absolutely have fought that through my career. People write in all the time about what my hair looks like.

But you know what? I'm a really good reporter, and I prove that every day in "THE SITUATION ROOM". And I don't feel that my career has been defined by the way I look.

I think that there are some women who buy into that. But there are others who say, "You know what? I'm going to create a niche for myself, and I'm going to prove myself in other ways. I'm not going to just sit there and depend on the way I look to be successful in the news business."

Now I do agree that it's hard to get older in the news business for women. And it may not be as hard for men. But I think they battle that, as well.

KURTZ: John Aravosis, what about men? Men get older. Some of them get overweight. Are they not subjected to the same type of pressure?

ARAVOSIS: I think men get some of the same pressure but not as much. I mean, even -- Howie, I was on CNN last week. And the first thing a friend told me was, "You looked like you had a good tan. It looked good on you."

I'm always getting comments about this shirt or that shirt. I think, however, women get it a lot more. It's society's own prejudice. You know, the older guy is the sexy affair you have or whatever in a movie. The older woman, not so much.

So you've got the -- in contrast, I agree with what Carol is saying, but I think part of the problem is a lot of these women are probably trying to sell their sex because they're afraid they're not going to get the job if they don't.

Now the thing is, I'm curious, what do you think? Do you think -- do you feel pressure as a guy to be beautiful, Howie?

KURTZ: That's pressure that I haven't really had to deal with. Again, I'm not a prime-time anchor. Carol, former ABC correspondent Judy Miller was quoted as saying the following, that an image consultant had told her during her network career, "You've got to stop wearing those turtlenecks. You've got to start showing some cleavage." Is this what goes on in the back rooms?

COSTELLO: Yes, that is. I have been told so many times through my career to get this tooth fixed. I have one crooked tooth. See?

KURTZ: I never noticed.

COSTELLO: I've been pressured -- I know. But I have been pressured to get that tooth fixed. And I have been pressured to wear my hair certain ways, and I've been pressured to dress certain ways. But I haven't done it. I think that there's a choice that you make.

And Judy had a long and respected career. And I think that's great. And she certainly didn't give in to the pressure. I mean...

SAUNDERS: Judy had a long and successful career. I mean, she's such a great journalist and she's at an age where -- you said "had", not "has".

KURTZ: She's now teaching at the University of Southern California.

Carol Costello, 20 seconds. Do you find it insulting that you feel like you're being graded this way, despite your obvious journalistic credentials?

COSTELLO: Yes, I do feel insulted. You know, I feel insulted by all these web sites who say they talk about the news business, yet they have a hottie list. And somehow they have to rank women according to their hotness in the news business. I really don't get things like that. And that, to me, is offensive.

KURTZ: All right. I think the only person who needs to be on the hottie list is John Aravosis. Thanks for joining us. Debra Saunders, Carol Costello.