Kathleen Parker

Primitive peoples are said to fear having their photographs taken lest their souls be stolen. They may be primitive - and their anxieties without scientific basis - but they're plenty smart.

And judging from what's happening in our celebrity, 15-minutes-of-fame culture, they may be right.

Something about the camera - the intrusion of media into human affairs - changes everything. Not just the reality, but the spirit and soul of people and events. Why else is there so much controversy about cameras in courtrooms?

We know from watching the O.J. trial that the cameras don't just record reality; they distort it. Lawyers and judges suddenly preen and perform for the camera; jurors dress up and arrive spit-shined and coiffed. Even among the print pros, the air shifts perceptibly when the lens swings their way. Who me?

The presence of cameras means anything could happen. One could become a star! Books, movies, diva limos, People magazine. Oh, to be a celebrity. Even if you're only a used-to-be celebrity - Joe Millionaire is already a has-been - at least insta-stardom gives people something to talk about in the Blockbuster line. If you've been on TV, why, you must be somebody.

Who-we-be, of course, changes the instant we have an audience. OK, all you joggers, admit it. When you're on a busy thoroughfare with lots of commuter traffic, you run faster and are more attuned to form than when you're alone on a dirt road out of public sight. I know I'm not the only one.

I've also noticed that when I do radio interviews, I am completely myself: chatty, spontaneous, relaxed. It's like talking on the phone with a friend. Inject a television camera and I'm suddenly self-conscious, wondering who does Paula's hair. It doesn't help that I'm pretending to talk to a fellow human being when I'm really just staring into a camera lens in an empty room.

It ain't real, in other words, and neither am I.

And what happens when "real" people - versus those of us whose choice of profession thrusts us into the public arena - suddenly become media objects, the operative word being "objects"?

Jeff Goodell had a poignant story this week in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about the nine Pennsylvania coal miners who were trapped and rescued a year ago from a flooded mine, and the effect their sudden celebrity has had on their lives.

Friendships have ruptured as some got better movie and book deals than others. Bob Long, who engineered the first air hole that saved the trapped miners' lives and was paid $150,000 for his story, committed suicide.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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