Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 2003 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Ron Rosenbaum

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Fools for Scandal | What's going on here? Is it just a coincidence that the new books by two of my favorite novelists —Bruce Wagner, West Coast literary Prince of Darkness, and Martin Amis, who needs no introduction —feature celebrity protagonists who get their heads beaten in and suffer severe, brain-damaging, capacity-diminishing cranial injuries that cause them to regress to lower evolutionary states?

I think I've figured it out. I think I have a sense of what Mr. Wagner's brilliant book, Still Holding, and Mr. Amis' Yellow Dog are both getting at, metaphorically: celebrity worship, celebrity journalism, celebrity obsession is the head injury of contemporary culture —the brain damage, the diminished capacity, the social retardation.

Both books leave open the question of whether we've been clubbed into celebrity insensibility by the media —whether we can blame them, or have only ourselves to blame for failure to resist its lure. And is the damage permanent, and will it become worse?

While I like the societal brain-damage metaphor for celebrity culture, there is a distinction that I think needs to be made which has been lost in much of the censorious media consideration of this question: the difference between celebrity journalism and what is often unthinkingly dismissed as "mere" tabloid sensationalism. Some people, some journalists, don't get the crucial difference. Celebrity culture is sterile, diminishing, cumulatively if not literally brain-damaging. In a word, stupid.

Sensationalism, however, can trace its literary roots back to the so-called "sensation fiction" of the 19th century. The work of Wilkie Collins (can anything compare to The Woman in White?) and the sensation fiction of Charles Dickens (I'm sure you've read Edmund Wilson on The Mystery of Edwin Drood), as well as the recently rediscovered Mary Elizabeth Braddon (The Trail of the Serpent), can be both exciting and profound.

But in practical terms, this season, the argument, the distinction has come down to a question of Laci vs. Kobe. There is the Laci Peterson case, and especially the story of her husband and accused murderer, Scott Peterson —a non-celebrity who is fast becoming one of the most fascinating, devious, sensational characters you could possibly want to study. (And that's even if he's innocent of the killing).

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And then there's Kobe Bryant, who is rich and famous, another celebrity in trouble. Yes, there are issues, but do you think they are the reason the national media is swarming all over the case?

I was stunned recently by a Midwestern newspaper column linked to on the Romenesko media news Web site, in which the writer excoriated his colleagues in the media for having the wrong priorities. He condemned coverage of the Laci Peterson case —but justified coverage of the Kobe Bryant case. Why Kobe and not Laci? "He's rich and famous . It's a striking confluence of celebrity, race and sex, so it deserves to be in the news all the time," the writer told us.

But Laci? The crime was murder, not rape; she's dead, but the point, apparently —to the columnist, anyway —is that she was a nobody when she was alive, so she doesn't deserve to be in the news: "She wasn't famous or married to anyone famous."

I'm not kidding; that's what he wrote. He's supposedly taking the high-minded journalistic position of condemning sensationalism, yet basically he's saying that ordinary people and their lives and struggles and tragedies just don't matter. In fact, they shouldn't matter —not to serious journalists such as himself.

Oh, yes, and there's one more reason —aside from the fact that "she was well-off but not rich" —he tells us: "She was murdered, but her death wasn't any more gruesome than any number of other deaths in the headlines." Damn, she wasn't fed into a wood-chipper or something really cool and gruesome like that!

He's not making the argument that coverage of the war in Iraq is more important than coverage of Laci —although both he and I would agree on that, and he does make that argument later on. No, his column centers on the argument that Kobe is more important than Laci. More important because Kobe is rich and Laci wasn't, more important because Kobe is famous and Laci wasn't. In trying to make an important argument, he actually internalizes the values of celebrity culture, which privileges the lives and deaths —and even the non-fatal troubles —of famous people over those of ordinary people.

This unfortunate confusion stems once again from the failure to distinguish between the values to be found in certain sensational tabloid stories and the lack of any redeeming value in most celebrity stories.

I was surprised recently to see something I'd written in these pages about journalistic priorities ("Columbia's J-School Needs to Consider Trollopian Retooling," Aug. 26, 2002), quoted by a columnist in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. It was part of an argument I've been making repeatedly, that the priorities of approved, dignified, J-school-certified journalism need to be revised or extended. In the passage quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review, I'd argued that the attention given to political corruption — "follow the money" —is certainly worthwhile, but that there ought to be another priority: the journalism of ideas. "Follow the ideas," I suggested, "in order to expose the fallacies, the unexamined assumptions of conventional wisdom, the bogus expertise that often underlies politics and culture."

But I would extend that argument —and, in fact, I have argued before —that some tabloid stories take us even deeper than the journalism of ideas. The great tabloid stories, like great literature, are about the nature of human nature, and they're often an argument about theodicy —the nature of God.

Indeed, much of great literature is founded upon, is an exploration of an essentially tabloid template. The Iliad is founded upon rape and revenge among humans, and sexual jealousy and adultery among the gods. Double Teenage Suicide in Tomb? Romeo and Juliet. Adulterous Wife Jumps in Front of Train When Love Triangle Is Exposed? Anna Karenina. Mystery Tycoon Dead in Swimming Pool? The Great Gatsby. Theodore Dreiser turned a quintessential tabloid murder —poor girl dies because poor boy wants to marry rich girl —into An American Tragedy, a remarkably good, certainly way-underrated novel. Tell me that Scott Peterson doesn't remind you of Clyde in An American Tragedy —not the rich-girl/poor-girl thing, but just the slimy self-deception.

And if you want to look at nonfiction, I've argued, look at some of the best journalism of the past half-century: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, a tabloid murder story that deepened in Capote's hands to a deadpan meditation on theodicy: why evil things happen to God-fearin' people, and what does that say about God —and about the belief in divine justice and mercy? And in The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer takes a stupid killing by a pathetic lowlife and turns it into an encyclopedic meditation on the contemporary American West.

I'll never forget a conversation I had with Harold Hayes, the great editor who made Esquire a source of excitement (or, at the very least, a source of Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Mr. Mailer). I was working on a story (for a journalism review) about a legendary tabloid reporter for the Daily News, Pat Doyle, whose claim it was that he had covered 15,000 murders, and who had an elaborate way of distinguishing between what he thought was a "good murder" from a so-so murder. A "good murder," Doyle said, usually involved some twist of fate, like a groom murdered at the altar, or some irony, like the murder I shadowed him covering —a shootout at a funeral home, a murder during a funeral.

I was telling Hayes how I was finding it hard to get a handle on what the story was really about, and Hayes said two words to me: "John Milton."

"John Milton?" I asked.

Yes, Hayes said, this tabloid reporter was, in effect, trying to "justify the ways of God to man." It was a phrase from the opening of Paradise Lost, in which Milton explained what he was proposing to do in the epic poem. Day in and day out, over the course of 15,000 murders, Doyle, a very religious guy, was trying to figure out something similar, justifying the ways of G-d to man: Why is this one murdered and not that one, what does the murder tell us about the ways of G-d and man?

In a Harper's essay, I made an assertion that never fails to shock some people, at least at first: a case that tabloid stories can be compared to The Federalist Papers, the meditations and argumentation of the writers of the U.S. Constitution. Because if you've read The Federalist Papers, you find them recurrently obsessed by the question of "the passions." The question of how much governmental restraint it takes, how many checks and balances and the like are necessary to restrain the wildfire tyranny of the passions —and the mob rule that pure democracy can devolve into when it gives way to inflammatory passion. And what are tabloid stories but investigations of the passions, of instances in which passions of one sort or another overcome restraint? How it happens, why it happens, how vulnerable "normal" human nature is to succumbing to often-murderous passions —and what "normal" human behavior is in the first place?

Celebrity journalism rarely offers any of these rewards. Because —how shall I put this? —despite the persistent and heroic efforts of celebrity journalists (and I've done a half-dozen or so celebrity profiles myself), celebrities, unless they actually have some real talent they can talk about, rarely have anything interesting to say. Their fame doesn't make them more interesting in terms of revealing anything about human nature. Our culture's fascination with them may well suggest something about human nature, or about the emptiness of a sensibility that makes people famous for being famous, for the most part. Or about a media culture that makes people famous so they can write about famous people.

I particularly love the interviews with famous people that concentrate almost exclusively on how they feel about being famous, how they "handle fame" —an attempt to make famous people interesting that almost always fails and yet persists, mainly because by the time they're famous, celebrities have already told and retold the stories of their trivial love affairs, estranged parents, career struggles, comebacks, feuds and failures before they became famous, so that there's nothing left to talk about but their current degree of fame, their hotness factor on the fame-ometer, and the burdens of fame, the tragedy of fame. Give me a break.

And yet we're told by that censorious newspaper columnist that we should care about Kobe Bryant because he's famous, but not Laci Peterson because she's not. Or only came into existence on the fame-ometer because she suddenly went into nonexistence, when she was murdered.

In fact, the very lack of fame —and the sudden prominence that tragedy gives to ordinary people —at least gives us a fresh insight into a human life that has not been emptied out by the shopworn, clapped-out phoniness of fame.

This, I think, is what Bruce Wagner is getting at in Still Holding: celebrity as a kind of brain damage you don't have to be clubbed over the head to suffer. More like a contagious encephalitic virus that causes brain damage to all those exposed to it —to those who experience it, to those who write about it, to those who read about it and promote it. In subjecting his brain-damaged, Brad Pitt-like hero to a series of cruel indignities —in graphically exposing us to the degradations that even the famous suffer from brain damage —Mr. Wagner is not just satirizing the cleaned-up, reverential treatment that Hollywood gives to the brain-damaged and mentally challenged: the good-hearted wisdom attributed to idiot savants in Rain Man; the deep profundity attributed to the simple-minded in Being There; the deep philosophical "life is a box of chocolates" wisdom attributed to Forrest Gump; the higher humor of Corky in Life Goes On and Benny in L.A. Law; the loyalty and courage displayed by the Billy Bob Thornton character in Sling Blade; or that heartbreaking lovableness Sean Penn endows Sam with in I Am Sam, and the radiant goodness of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Radio. He's also suggesting that the secret source of this Hollywood romanticization of brain damage is that Hollywood itself is brain damage: Hollywood is our nation's head injury, the source of our spiritual retardation.

One cruel thing that all this romanticizing of diminished capacity (from whatever source, injury or disease) does is to make it more difficult for those people —the parents and caregivers —who have to deal with the real problems of the mentally challenged. It's also unfair to the mentally challenged, because it raises expectations about them: Why can't they be nonstop saintly and lovable like the ones we see on film and TV?

Which brings us to the Laci Peterson story —which is really the Scott Peterson story. Innocent until proven guilty, of course. But still, even if he's innocent of the murder, Mr. Peterson is nevertheless a world-class, class-defining sleazeball. Whose actions do, in a certain sense, show a side, a depth or rather a shallowness to human nature, that we may have not seen before. No crude Jeffrey Dahmer/Charles Manson type, Scott's behavior is fascinating to students of human nature because, on the surface he's so, well, "normal." Or maybe his behavior is fascinating because it says, "This is what 'normal' really is."

"Sensation literature," as Sarah Waters notes in her introduction to the Modern Library edition of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Trail of the Serpent, leads us to "ponder the semipermeable social membranes through which we experience the lives of others and risk the under- or over-exposure of ourselves; and we must discover that personality, at some point, becomes opaque —that there are moments of psychic stress that language is incapable of containing or even describing, scenes, as Braddon puts it, 'too painful and too sacred for many words.'"

Or as Gloria Allred, who is representing "massage therapist" Amber Frey, the "other woman" (or one of them) in the Peterson case, put it: "This is Halloween. We're beginning to unmask Scott Peterson. We're finding out who the real Scott Peterson is."

For those of you who are late to the story, or have been brow-beaten by the high-minded and self-righteous into ignoring the Scott and Laci saga, here are the basics: Scott and Laci were a supposedly happily married American couple from Modesto, Calif. (also the hometown of Gary Condit). Scott is frequently described as a "specialty fertilizer salesman," although my extensive research has yet to reveal what was so special about his specialty fertilizer, except that it was imported from Spain (insert "bullshit" joke here). Laci was approaching the last month of her pregnancy, while Scott was, as the title of the just-announced TV-movie project on the case has it, "the perfect husband." A great title, because the whole affair is an investigation of marriage, isn't it?

I mean, while Laci was approaching delivery, Scott was carrying on a shameless affair with "massage therapist" Amber Frey, even getting himself and Amber photographed at one of Amber's office parties in Fresno less than 100 miles away from his and Laci's nest of domestic bliss.

O.K., no big deal, you say —all men are dogs; no news there. But it's Scott's behavior after his wife "disappeared" on Christmas Eve that raises him to major-sleazebag level. Even if you didn't murder your conveniently disappeared wife (although her body just happened to wash ashore four months later in the same spot where Scott claimed to be fishing on the night before the "disappearance"), putting up a front of pious concern for her while practically stalking the massage therapist for further "dates" (as police-tape transcripts reveal) is just not the way to get on with the grieving process.

For one thing, one isn't supposed to assume her dead so quickly when, who knows, it could have been an Elizabeth Smart-type thing (to bring up another resonant tabloid story). Unless you knew that your wife was dead because you killed her.

I also like the testimony of the Mercedes salesman in the case. Well, he wasn't a Mercedes salesman exactly; he was someone who sold a Mercedes to Scott, who allegedly told him during the course of the transaction that his (Scott's) first name was Jacqueline. Huh? According to the guy who sold him the Mercedes, Scott said that his parents had named him Jacqueline as a kind of "Boy Named Sue"-style jest. Ha ha ha, what a jest —because it turns out that Scott's mother's name is Jacqueline. But it's these little details that make Scott such a fascinating operator. What was he up to? What was the deal with the Jacqueline story? Who was it supposed to fool; what purpose was it meant to serve? Was it connected with the peroxide job he got and the wad of cash he had on him when he was allegedly planning to escape to Mexico when Laci's body finally washed up?

Scott is beginning to sound like that rare bird: a Monty Python/Peter Sellers/Jimmy Breslin-style villain, a one-man "gang who couldn't shoot straight." Could there be a head injury in his past? Or is he outsmarting us by posing as incredibly dumb and obvious? (Like his question to the cops the night of Laci's "disappearance," about whether they'd begun using "cadaver-sniffing dogs" in their search for her.)

Forget the alleged computer research on the date-rape drug GHB, the eyewitness with the glass eye, or the mops left outside the house on the day after Laci "disappeared"; there's enough great stuff coming out in this case that Larry King devoted an entire week of CNN programming to Laci and Scott during the ongoing preliminary hearing. And though I'm a fan of Court TV commentator Nancy Grace, who graces the King show Laci "panel" with her tough-minded former prosecutor's skepticism about Scott's lies, I also rely on Fox's Greta Van Susteren and her panel (including my favorite sarcastic lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger) for continuing saturation coverage of the Scott and Laci story.

It's just fascinating, every new tidbit. The trip to Paris, for instance, another little detail from my favorite massage therapist, Amber Frey (no, I haven't seen the nude "modeling" shots Ms. Frey had taken, and I'm shocked that there are those who have sought to exploit them). It was one of the many dumb (or super-smart; who can tell with this guy?) stories that Scott told Amber, in addition to the one that he was not married; his wife had died (two weeks before her actual death). Apparently Scott also told Amber that he wouldn't be "around" during the holidays —when his wife "disappeared" —because he had a "trip to Paris" scheduled.

Poor Laci, poor Amber, poor us. Scott is going to be acquitted of murder, I'll bet (the case so far is mainly circumstantial), although he ought to be sentenced to life without parole for sleaziness.

Or, to sum up what sensationalism teaches us about human nature, consider the epigraph to The Trail of the Serpent, from the Irish poet Thomas Moore:

Poor race of men, said the pitying Spirit,

Dearly ye pay for your primal fall;

Some flowers of Eden ye yet inherit,

But the trail of the Serpent is over them all.

JWR contributor Ron Rosenbaum is a columist for The New York Observer and the author, most recently, of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil" and "The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms". Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Ron Rosenbaum