While you sometimes have to convince skeptics that politics matter, it's even harder to get people to see that the decisions the media make when it comes to pop culture are important. But they are. We live in a time in which celebrity is not only something that often comes without being earned by any achievement, but fame is inescapable in our culture and the focus of so much attention on television and online.
I think we're paying a price for our obsession with faux celebrity. So even though I know it's a losing battle, my 2012 New Year's resolution is meant to take a shot at fighting back.
My 2012 New Year's resolution is to ignore people who receive news coverage despite the fact that, by any reasonable approach, they shouldn't matter as public figures.
Of course, when the subject of famous for being famous comes up, the first people to spring to mind are the members of a certain family whose late patriarch was an attorney for O.J. Simpson, mainly three of the daughters who seem to be famous for marrying professional athletes and shopping. This family (I won't name them and violate my resolution before 2012 even begins, but you know who I'm talking about) is the low hanging fruit of the faux celebrity phenomenon and the symbol of an entire class of reality show "celebrities" who are famous even though they have literally done nothing to warrant attention other than being on television. (This very online publication saw fit to feature on its front page the pregnancy of a woman whose claim to fame is having an affair with a professional golfer.)
It all reminds me of an exchange between Jason Alexander's George and a television executive played by Bob Balaban in the Seinfeld episode "The Pitch," in which the executive asks George why people would watch a show about nothing, and George responds, "Because it's on TV." The 20 years of television history since the episode ran seem to support the idea that George was right.
But I'm not just talking about the famous-for-being-famous set. Sometimes people used to matter but don't anymore. Or at least shouldn't. This week a former SNL performer, who hasn't had an acting gig of note since she left the show nearly 20 years ago, was in the news because she said the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government and is going to institute Sharia law. (Again, I'm not naming her.) If my next-door-neighbor said the same thing, no newspaper, website, television network or even community newsletter would cover it. Why? Because it's the rantings of a bats*$t-crazy lunatic. But because she was on a successful comedy show 20 years ago it's news? No.
Put another way, if this former actress announced she was switching from an iPhone to an Android phone, would the press cover it? No. Why? Because she doesn't matter. (Right or wrong, if Angelina Jolie swapped phones, there would be articles analyzing the underlying meaning. It's clear the former SNL performer only gets coverage for saying crazy crap.) So if she doesn't matter when she talks about mundane things, we shouldn't care about her isnane conspiracy theories, either.
Besides, it's pretty clear the actress gets this. When she says nutso things, the press covers it. When she doesn't (as happened for close to 20 years), she lives in obscurity. Clearly she's doing it to get publicity. Why give it to her?
So who cares if the press covers pseudo stars and washed up performers? I do, because the same mentality has seeped into politics.
This week a sitting member of Congress who is seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency made the obviously false, seriously insane charge, "The president can put abortion pills for girls 8 years of age, 11 years of age, on the bubblegum aisle." You may think, "Well, it's Michele Bachmann. Everyone knows she says ridiculous, false things all the time." But why does she? I don't believe she actually thinks the president wants to make morning-after pills available to minors in the candy section of stores. Even she has to know that's not true.
But she also knows that she will get attention when she says crazy, false, incendiary things. It's not like she can impress people with her intelligence, knowledge, depth of thought, competence or insightful proposals. Controversial is all she has, especially now that her campaign is deader than Kris Humphries' marriage (I can name him because he has an actual skill and reason to be covered, at least by the sports press). And it's a lesson learned from those who can only find celebrity through acting crazy.
Not that Bachmann is the only no-chance candidate making use of this tactic. Rick Santorum has made the obviously false statements that universities are liberal "indoctrination centers" and the president is a proponent of Marxism. Rick Perry decided to release a gay-bashing television commercial and was happy to relay an obviously false patient anecdote about the new health care law. The lesson is clear: Controversial statements get press, no matter how false, hateful or insane they are.
Clearly, the media has to (and should) publicize when a public official says something that is false and crazy. The public needs information with which to make civic and electoral decisions, and knowing that a politician has no problem lying to make a point and/or has off-the-wall beliefs is absolutely relevant.
But if a reality television star used to have a lousy hairstyle, well, I'm quite sure we can survive as a democracy without knowing this nugget of information.
So I resolve in 2012 not to contribute to the publicity of people that don't matter. If any of the far more powerful members of the media decide to follow suit, I think that would be a really good thing for our democracy.
And it's in the hands of all Americans not to allow themselves to be sucked into the nonsense, whether it's reality television celebrities, long-past-it performers or even politicians prone to attention-getting false and outrageous statements. The press may have to cover the controversy-baiting politicians, but Americans don't have to take them seriously.
It's not like the Michele Bachmanns, Ricky Perrys and Rick Santorums of the world need more encouragement to belch out outlandish lies and hateful charges to get publicity.