Is Paris news or do I just need a life?

Is Paris Hilton’s legal goings-on legitimate news? We ask, you decide.==Photo by Peter Sch√§fermeier of Universal Photo.

An interesting debate took place this morning on CNN’s Reliable Sources. The show’s host, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, and a panel of journalists discussed the newsworthiness of the current legal saga engulfing socialite, TV star and celebrity ding-a-ling Paris Hilton.

In March, Hilton was sentenced to 45 days in jail for violating her probation stemming from a DUI arrest in 2006. Whether she actually goes to jail in June remains to be seen.

I must confess that I cannot remember a whole lot about the discussion on Howie’s show this morning as I was doing something and only got bits and pieces of the discourse. But it is an interesting debate. The majority of Americans who are sentenced for probation violations on drunk driving charges are hardly mentioned by the media unless they are celebrities, government officials, or have run over someone or something significant.

At a paper where I once worked, I remember that a local morning show TV anchor was arrested by police after she was stopped for speeding and allegedly assaulted the officer. The assault was trivial as I remember. I believe she had jerked the ticket book from the officer’s hand and may have caused him to bang his hand on the door but causing no real injury. I could be wrong about the details.

Since many of the reporters at that paper looked contemptuously at local TV news types, there seemed to be some joy expressed in the newsroom regarding the incident. The charges were dropped, but the police beat reporter kept the anchor’s angry mugshot on his cubicle wall. The reason her photo sported an angry look is that the anchor was running late for her job at whatever ungodly hour she had to get there for the morning gig, (the reason she was speeding) not to mention getting arrested. The charges were later dropped, so she got quite a lot of negative publicity and was never found guilty.

Although I was not a big fan of the television personality who was taken to jail, I did wonder just how fair the newspaper was being. Would our photos have appeared in the paper for similar arrests? I guess it would depend on who was arrested, their position and whether or not he or she was liked by the editors. My mugshot might have run. I’ll just leave it at that because I remain under a confidentiality agreement with that paper. I do remember that a young woman who worked on the copy desk was arrested on the job after she was spotted by a security guard in the paper’s smoking area inhaling weed. She was fired but the incident did not make the news at our paper.

The fact is that whether a person’s name or picture appears in the news for some legal infraction short of violent crime is rather arbitrary among newspapers and the electronic media. The same goes for suicides. Most newspapers don’t report suicides unless it is someone well-known or the death occurs in a public place. Most local news outlets do report, sometimes with an obituary and other times with stories, when one of their own dies either violently or from natural causes. Depending on the paper and how large it is, these obits might be written for anyone whether they were a janitor, pressman or editor.

But celebrities of all ilk seem to be fair game for any infraction be it legal or of a personal nature. Some sports figures seem to get into legal messes so often these days that sports desks at newspapers should think about hiring their own police beat reporter just to cover the arrests.

Of course, the news executives defend their practices related to news about celebrities. It’s what the public wants. The public is consumed with celebrity. I have seen TV news people from even the smallest of markets asked for their autograph. I don’t think anyone ever asked for my autograph during the 17 years I worked for newspapers. That is even though I, at one time, wrote a column that was distributed nationally. I must admit that I would have felt silly signing an autograph. The fact that I was never asked seems just about the way the matter should have been.

News types like to wail, gnash their teeth and wring their hands over even the most minuscule issues that affect them. So the debate over reporting of celebrity hijinks is largely an internal gabfest. It is an interesting topic. But it isn’t among the biggest struggle that society faces these days. So, I wonder: Why did I just devote 30 minutes and all these paragraphs and words devoted to this issue? It beats me. I suppose that I just need a life.

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