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March 18, 2009

An Actress Is Injured, and the Hordes Descend

So, what did we gain from the breathless, constantly updated, rumor-fueled media deathwatch over Natasha Richardson?

In whose interest was the deathwatch held? What were the compelling reasons for it? The public's right to know definitely wasn't one of them.

It was tawdry celebrity journalism, and it was ugly -- the kind of thing that makes a person feel dirty just reading it. (Thus the lack of links to the coverage here. No sense spreading the grime.) And yet some of it was dressed up as arts journalism: Richardson was a serious actress from a famous family of serious actors, including her famous mother, and she was married to a serious actor who happens to be a movie star. Mother, daughter and husband had a string of stage as well as film credits. So there was an upscale appeal to the story, which played everywhere.

For anyone but those closest to the family, however, there was no real urgency to it. Yes, one could argue that there are financial repercussions when Liam Neeson has to leave a film set, and that bears reporting. But could the media not simply have reported Richardson's accident and his going to her side, then given their family a couple of days, for God's sake, to deal with the unfolding crisis on their own? Was it necessary to be such voyeurs, such rumormongers? Was it beneath no one to descend on the family and report tidbits and hearsay that were, truly, none of our business?

I'm not saying it wasn't a story at all. I am saying the media could have been more dignified and more decent about covering it. Restraint would have been a nice thing.

Yes, the technology exists to report a story moment to moment. Choosing not to cover something that way can mean being beaten by the competition. But the questions we ask ourselves to determine whether -- and, by extension, how -- we cover something are the same as they've always been: Is it a story? Is it the kind of story we want to tell our readers? Is covering it the best use of our resources? Does covering it require us to debase ourselves?

And there's this litmus test of journalistic performance, a piece of advice I heard David Isay give at a panel discussion once: "Just act like a fucking human being."

With all its panting disregard for decency and fact, coverage of Richardson's last two days of life failed that test in spades.
March 18, 2009 6:02 PM | | Comments (1)


Isn't "tawdry celebrity journalism" redundant?

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