You will be assimilated
21 September 2014 01:52 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ryland Fisher

Celebrity culture: Waiting for the next big fall from grace

  • Ryland Fisher
We have been so willingly seduced by celebrity culture that we refuse to accept that the role models presented to us by the media often have few redeeming features beyond their particular skill or talent. Fame and infamy are the stocks in the celebrity trade. And the media knows that in many cases, it is only a matter of when, and not if, our heroes will fall.

One of the things that I love most about the media industry is its unpredictability. No two days are the same and one never knows how one day is going to end. One can obviously plan, as one should, but the best plans can often be undermined or overtaken by a big breaking story.

The best scenario is when the big story of the day is one that your media outlet has broken, but this is often not the case. Most often, media outlets chase a big story and pursue different angles to make sure that – even though they might not have broken a particular story – they can at least offer their readers/viewers/listeners something different.

In today’s complex media environment, where more and more people are getting their news from social media and websites, there is even greater pressure on traditional media to differentiate themselves.

But the pressure is also caused by commercial reasons. In an environment where many countries’ economies have been depressed for much of the past five years, advertising revenues have not been at the levels where growth has come naturally for most media houses.

Of course, no big story lasts forever and the better media houses have learnt how to milk a big story and when to move on to the next big story.

There is no loyalty in the media industry to any one story. A story might be big today but it can be discarded in no time if something bigger and better comes along. After all, most of the media sell NEWS and not OLDS, so they have to present something new and different every time.

This is where the concept of the 15 minutes of fame comes from. Someone does something crazy and becomes a big news item, but their fame only lasts until the next big story.

Oscar Pistorius has had more than his 15 minutes of fame. His fame has been based mainly on the overcoming-all-obstacles-story of a boy who lost his legs at an early age and still went on to compete in the able-bodied Olympics. In some ways, it was a story that was too good to be true, but we continued to believe in it, because we needed to hope.

Pistorius has already had more than his 15 minutes of infamy too. No matter what the courts decide at the end of his trial for the murder of his model girlfriend, he will probably have mainly infamy for the rest of his life.

Like in the case of OJ Simpson, there will always be doubts about his guilt or innocence and this is likely to follow him to his grave.

The Pistorius case once again throws up the role of the media in building and promoting a celebrity culture.

We are so desperate for heroes that we feed on the words of people whose main talent in life is to sing, dance or play sport well. Most of the time they do not have redeeming features beyond the extraordinary skill they possess, whether it is in sport, music or some such field.

We don’t really interrogate their value systems, their education or their backgrounds. The less said about our obsession with politicians, who often lack the moral integrity to be role models, the better.

As celebrity lovers, we rejoice when our “heroes” have a weakness –whether it is for excessive gambling or for not being able to remain loyal to one woman or man at a time. We put this down to the nature of the celebrity lifestyle.

But when our “heroes” fall from grace – as in the cases of Pistorius, Tiger Woods, Hansie Cronje or Lance Armstrong, among many others – we feign ignorance and pretend to be surprised that this could have happened.

However, in a perverse way, those of us who have been in the media industry for a while know that anyone can fall from grace. In many cases, it is only a matter of when and not if this will happen.

In fact, most of us probably have good and bad in us and there is, in my very humble opinion, a continuous fight between what makes us good or bad.

So, the possibility remains that all of us could at some point in our life do something stupid that could change our lives forever.

Not all of us will get caught out, however, and not all of us will have the resources, when we get caught out, to employ the best legal brains in the business to help get us out of the mess in which we landed ourselves.

I hold no brief for Pistorius. In fact, I have a lot more sympathy for the young woman he is accused of murdering. This is not only because I am the father of three young women, but because the focus in the media over the past few weeks has been more on the alleged perpetrator than on the victim. Maybe it is because the alleged perpetrator is a much bigger celebrity than the victim and could help with the media’s ratings and/or circulation figures.

At least the South African media has not used the victim’s natural beauty to boost their ratings, but they must have been sorely tempted.

I hope that one day the media will understand its role in building and destroying celebrities. I have always felt more comfortable with media that focuses on issues rather than celebrities, but, I suppose, issues also need to be endorsed by celebrities, which means that the celebrity culture will probably be with us for many years to come ­– I guess as long as we still have media.

After Pistorius, many in the media are already wondering who will be the next big celebrity to fall from grace. At first, of course, we will be shocked, but then we will move on when we realise that s/he was just a victim of human frailty; something which could befall any of us. DM

  • Ryland Fisher
ryland fisher

Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive.
Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.
Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa.
He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.

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