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Paris Hilton vs. Michael Moore? What about Paris Hilton vs. DARFUR?

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

June 28th, 2007

So, last night, CNN’s Larry King Live was supposed to have aired a full hour conversation with documentarian Michael Moore, pegged to his new film, Sicko, and focused on the often life-and-death issue of health care reform in America. Instead, they bumped Moore and reschedule the segment for Friday, in order to air a much hyped interview with Paris Hilton, fresh from the slammer.

What totally unpredictable insights did the heiress share with Captain Suspenders? Well, here’s how interview clips are captioned on CNN’s website today:
“Hilton: jail time not deserved” and “Hilton: Jail slop wasn’t tasty” and “Hilton: I make my own money.”

Gee, I feel so much more informed now that I know that Paris didn’t savor her prison vittles. Much more informed than I’d be if, say, CNN had offered me an hour of detailed conversation about the health insurance industry’s prioritization of profit over provision of medical services, the effects on working and middle class women’s and families’ physical well being, and the literally fatal impact health insurance industry standards can have on those people who have health benefits in the first place.

(I, for one, haven’t had health insurance since founding Women In Media & News in 2001, so on a personal level, Sicko isn’t about me — like so many underresourced non-profit women’s groups, WIMN would have to be funded at a significantly higher level before I can be “lucky” enough to be denied care by an unscrupulous insurance carrier. Though I haven’t seen the film yet, I gather that “Sicko’s” end goal — Moore’s push for universal, non-privatized health care accessible to all — would speak for the millions of low income Americans who, like me, are uninsured and live in fear of not being able to afford to get sick.)

Not to get all polemical on you or anything, but when corporate media outlets care more about profit than informing the public (ie, health care isn’t as sexy as Paris Hilton, and “sexy” = ratings = advertisers’ cash), when journalism functions more like the PR arm of entertainment studios and Fortune 500 companies, it is a serious threat to our democracy.

Our media system is broken. Recently, the blogosphere was buzzing about the fact that a Google search turns up five times more references to reality TV star Paris Hilton than to the deadly humanitarian crisis in Darfur — approx. 68,200,000 Hilton hits to approx. 13,500,000 mentions of Darfur. That’s an interesting stat, but Google includes livejournals, entertainment zines, celebrity fan forums and the like; what I care about is actual journalism. So, today I did a “major newspapers” search in the Nexis.com news database, and found that over the past month Paris Hilton was mentioned in 2246 newspaper stories, while these same papers referenced Darfur in only 919 stories.

The fact that U.S. newspapers are devoting more than twice as much coverage (and far more prominent placement of coverage) to Paris Hilton than the genocide in Darfur indicates the should-be-shocking-but-sadly-isn’t misplaced priorities of contemporary corporate journalism. Imagine the change that could be implemented if Darfur was treated with the same journalistic urgency as the kind of lead story, never ending, up-to-the-minute coverage of Hilton’s every move, (which Jon Stewart satirized brilliantly here)?

It also strikes me as exceptionally problematic — but ultimately typical in our sexist media climate — that even though numerous studies statistically document that women are vastly underrepresented as subjects, sources and experts in news, when media do focus near-all-consuming attention on a woman, it’s someone like Hilton, an underweight, over-rich model who got famous for a sex tape, and for a reality TV show whose hook was how stupid, shallow and bitchy she is.

I’m honestly not sure what is less newsworthy — Paris Hilton, or those “Is your dog a sissy?” filler fluff pieces that run on “Fox & Friends.” Not like I expect better from Larry King, but bumping a serious discussion about health care reform for a ratings-pandering chat with a vapid pop princess is just pathetic.

Meanwhile, apropros of nothing, a writer friend, David Dickerson, describes Hilton as “the perfect celebrity for the Bush era: proud of her ignorance, too rich to care, to coddled to change, utterly stage-managed and artificial; the very embodiment of a morally empty concept.” With tweaks to a key noun, he could be describing the media outlets that fawn all over her.

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