Any visit to an American newsstand will illustrate the most widespread phenomenon of the times: The print media are runny with the virus of celebrity. The names and faces of movie actors, rock musicians, rappers, and fashion models adorn the covers of most magazines. If the subjects are not people who perform for a living, they are people whose celebrity is derived from notoriety. Depending upon the week or the year, Madonna competes with Joey Buttafuoco. Hugh Grant duels with Lorena Bobbitt. Eddie Murphy is cast beside the parents of JonBenet Ramsey. When accomplishment predates notoriety, the names are even bigger. Hey, folks, here’s O.J. Simpson! And Marv Albert! And Frank Gifford! Big names, folks. Bigger than you insignificant schnooks! Bigger than God!
Newspapers are not immune to the celebrity virus. Depending upon the editors, they peddle a blander or coarser version of the same obsession with big names. True accomplishment is marginal to the recognition factor. There is seldom any attention paid to scientists, poets, educators, or archaeologists. Citizens who work hard, love their spouses and children, pay taxes, give to charities, and break no laws are never in a newspaper unless they die in some grisly murder. Even solid politicians, those who do the work of the people without ambitions for immense power, and do so without scandal, are ignored. The focus of most media attention, almost to the exclusion of all other subjects, are those big names.
Newspaper reporters and editors know that most of these people aren’t worth six minutes of anybody’s time. Privately, they sneer at them or shrug them off. But they and their publishers are convinced that the mass audience is demanding these stories, so they keep churning them out. They defend their choices by insisting they are only giving the people what they want. If they are right, the country is in terrible trouble. I think they’re wrong.
Newspaper people have more reason than others to know that some of these big names are mere creatures of hype and self-promotion. After all, they take the calls that are soon eagerly converted into stories. One entire subgenre flows from the jowly megalomania of New York real estate operator Donald Trump. There are many real estate people of more solid achievement and greater power than Trump’s, and certainly many more accomplished businessmen. But such men and women usually prefer to live outside the spotlight; like people who really have money or those with truly interesting sex lives, they don’t brag about them. They don’t invent their lives in cahoots with press agents; they live them.
But Trump flies to the spotlight, even demands it. His motto seems to be “I’m written about, therefore I exist.” He personally telephones gossip columnists and reporters to present them with stories about the wonders of himself, his great love life, his brusque divorces. In the spirit of true collaboration, the newspapers quote “sources close to Trump” as their authority, a code known to other editors but not revealed to the readers. In a way, Trump has his own brilliance. He has a genius for self-inflation, for presenting an illusion of accomplishment that often becomes the accomplishment itself. A tiny solar system now revolves around Trump’s own self-created persona: his ex-wives, Ivana Trump and Marla Maples Trump, followed by his poor teenage daughter, Ivanka Trump, who is being hurled into the world of fashion models under the benevolent gaze of Daddy. This vulgar saga threatens to go on and on.
No offense against taste is beyond Trump and his journalistic collaborators. Months after the death of Diana Spencer in a car wreck in Paris, Trump was publishing another of his ghostwritten hardcover hymns to his own genius. He gave an interview to the New York Daily News, which was serializing his book, even though most editors knew it was a second-rate exercise in self-promotion. Trump knew exactly what the publishers of the Daily News wanted, and the next day’s front page showed his face, his book, and a nauseating headline that screamed “I WISH I HAD DATED DI.”
When I was editing the Daily News, I tried to control the virus of which Trump was the local symbol. Trump was not banned from the newspaper, but he did have to do something to appear in its pages. The “stories” slowed to a trickle, and one result was that we were beaten by the New York Post on the story of Trump’s divorce. We had a rumor; they had Trump, speaking as “a source close to Trump.” It was my responsibility and I chose not to run an unverified rumor. I was glad I made that choice. After I was canned, Trump “stories” came back in a fetid rush.