In her book reflecting on Pope John Paul the Great, Peggy Noonan told of her parents coming of age in a time when they didn't absorb religious art, but rather celluloid images of movie stars. They left religious faith and devotion to saints behind for icons of a different kind: "Bogie and Gable and Cagney and Bette Davis. We did not as a family go to church. But we never missed the Academy Awards."
In our own age, it is so much easier to get lost in celebrity worship. To own a television and to be considered even a novice with the remote control is to find yourself ubiquitously dazzled by a gargantuan celebrity culture. But there's a world of difference between what dazzled Noonan's parents and what obsesses this generation. The Bogarts and Gables and Cagneys were attractive based on the characters they played; today's stars are notable for who they really are. Yesteryear's celebrities were dashing, beautiful, romantic. Today, they make headlines only if they are controversial.
Today, we can find entire channels devoted to celebrities and obsess about everything they say, buy, wear, eat, cook, think. Their marriages and divorces, their babies and relatives, their arrests and addictions and recoveries -- we can easily be gorged on the excess of it all.
The celebrity culture is so omnipresent that it's almost mandatory to denounce how it's taken over our televisions, especially our news programs that are supposed to be about, well, news. We're bleary-eyed from ghoulish updates about how the corpse of Anna Nicole Smith is decaying rapidly and breathless announcements that the severed locks of Britney Spears could capture thousands of dollars on eBay. But then comes the distressed realization that by denouncing it, you're also adding to the attention paid to it.
It's clear that no one of sound mind should worship at the temple of Britney, or Anna Nicole, or virtually anyone else making splashes on the E! channel. The best thing you can say about the current celebrity journalism glut is that it's teaching an object lesson in How Not to Live.
And yet we're fixated. The executives at syndicated entertainment shows, celebrity cable channels and news networks find their ratings numbers rise like a Bundt cake whenever they obsess over these stories. It is we, not they, who are to blame. Until we decide to glide right by any network that's exploiting these tabloid sensations, this unhealthy state of events will continue.