When Lindsay Lohan was sentenced to spend 90 days in jail this summer, it coincided with news of the BP oil leakage stopping as well as the decision for the appointment of Buffalo’s new police commissioner.
Her sobs in the courtroom — claiming, “It wasn’t a vacation” — filled local half-hour news segments on WGRZ Channel 2 On Your Side and WIVB Channel 4. Yet while I understand why news of Lohan’s arrest may be covered on TMZ, I do not understand why news networks were also covering her episodes with authority — especially since her arrest does not affect anyone from Buffalo, N.Y.
However, information and interest in Lohan’s arrest should not be surprising. As Jill Neimark of Psychology Today wrote in a May 1, 1995 article, “Whether it’s a hero-turned-murderer or a rock star committing suicide, the media brings us together in a global society.” She argues that we put celebrities such as Lohan in the limelight so that we can collectively criticize them — we put them down to feel better about ourselves.
“Though fractured into bits of gossip, celebrities, of course, still bring us real meaning,” Neimark writes. Neimark claims that Paris Hilton’s reality television show, “The Simple Life,” may simply give our lives meaning, and that Lohan’s escapades serve their purpose as entertainment.
While Neimark’s comments may validate why Lohan appears in on local news channels — and why people are interested in watching — using bad celebrity press is demeaning, especially when there is real news to be told. Don’t people deserve to know about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf or about the cholera outbreak in Haiti? Don’t people deserve to learn about real news? Why is our culture so focused on celebrity and not politics or government? Don’t people understand that politics matter — that legislation and opinion affect what one can and cannot do?
Amy Henderson, a historian in the Smithsonian Institution, wrote that people used to value “military heroes” and “eminent statesmen.” People used to look up to people who actually mattered — and perhaps talked about and covered things that actually mattered too. While I am not saying that Lohan does not matter, she certainly matters a whole lot less next to the BP oil spill disaster.
Although Lohan’s claim-to-fame in The Parent Trap and Mean Girls make her a modern celebrity, and she may have been good at what she does, it is overshadowed by the coverage of the press. Her flops of recent movies, such as I Know Who Killed Me, and her stints in jail do not help her image either. In fact, her DWI arrests and her crying incident make her more laughable than credible.
But it is not Lohan’s fault. Perhaps her childhood stardom put her on the media radar in the first place. Still, as Henderson describes, the modern celebrity is “celebrated not for achievement, but simply for ‘well-knowness.’” This explains how a character like “Snooki” has ever entered American households, and why people return to the Jersey Shore. But don’t you see something wrong with that picture?
Should Lindsay Lohan be more famous — or infamous — than the crooks on Wall Street or than those responsible for the oil disaster in the Gulf?
It saddens me that ten years after the U.S. war with Afghanistan began, nobody can name how many soldiers died for our nation in either Iraq or Afghanistan. At the same time, however, everyone knows that Jon and Kate had eight kids, and that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are the Ken and Barbie of the celebrity generation. Everyone knows about Lohan’s misadventures in and out of jail and rehab, but we do not know offhand that according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty count, there were 4,427 and counting fatalities in Iraq and 1,380 similar cases in Afghanistan.
However, I am not here to underscore the importance of celebrity culture and its ability to make a societal impact. I applaud Sean Penn — and not just his ability as an actor — for camping in Haiti and trying to help a good cause. I was happy to see him report to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! about the conditions in Haiti this summer, and I am pleased that he corresponded with The New York Times about what it was like on the island after Hurricane Tomas swept the country. I am glad that Lady Gaga voiced her opinion about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. At the same time, I am just asking society to be more mindful of important political and social issues.
While I will be the first to admit that I found Lohan’s breakdown laughable, I do not understand why mainstream media will highlight Lohan, especially when more time and energy could be devoted to disasters such as the Indonesia tsunami which killed at least 113 people and left 502 missing, or solving the problems exposed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The BP oil spill, called the “worst in U.S. history” by organizations such as The Los Angeles Times, caused a lasting ecological effect and will affect the area for years. Travis Walter Donovan of the Huffington Post compiled a list of seven long-term effects of the gulf oil spill, which is continuing to affect factors such as tourism and the seafood industry and the economy along the Gulf coast. As for talk of Lohan’s jail time — it will only last until the next time Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift at the VMA awards or until Janet Jackson flashes her cleavage at the Superbowl.
But do both events really merit the same amount of back-to-back coverage? After all, media reflects a society, and if all we care about is which celebrities are doing drugs, sex and booze, what does that say about us as a culture?
Lohan, although a celebrity, does not deserve to fill the shoes of the 24-hour news cycles of the mainstream media. After all, if issues in the press were not overshadowed by Lindsay’s jail time, perhaps these issues will last longer than 24 hours.
Qina Liu is an Ithaca College journalism major from Buffalo, N.Y.