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April 22, 2009

Billy Bob TV - Do Celeb Interviews Undermine Arts Journalism?

Recently, actor Billy Bob Thornton went on radio in Toronto and gave a bizarre interview filled with non-sequiturs. A video of the segment became a YouTube sensation. As of this morning it has been watched 1.8 million times.

Thornton said he was angry that host Jian Ghomeshi introduced him as an actor and not as a musician. So he decided not to cooperate with the interview. This week he went on Jimmy Kimmel to elaborate:

In the real news world, we expect that interview subjects don't usually get to dictate the questions reporters ask. In entertainment journalism it's common for stars to get to say ahead of time what they will and will not talk about. They sometimes also get to control which images of them can be printed in magazines desperate for celebrity juice. Network TV producers rise in status based on their ability to land star interviews, along the way making deals for terms of the interviews.

Does such celeb "journalism" undermine "real" journalism? Maybe no one really expects that movie or TV or music star journalism is real journalism. But if stars dictate how they're covered, then what about movie studios or recording companies? They have the power to grant access, and why wouldn't they insist on terms?

What about journalists who try to honestly assess a performer's work or a studio's product? Why wouldn't they be frozen out for asking uncomfortable questions?

If there's an expectation that star interviews aren't real journalism, then where's the line where "real" journalism begins? So coverage of Universal is compromised by pre-set conditions. What about coverage of the LA Philharmonic? Billy Bob gets to say what he won't talk about ahead of time. Does Stephen Sondheim get the same treatment? Renee Fleming?

Arts journalism has always been treated as a junior branch office in the wider journalism world. Maybe we need to be clearer about the expectations for what we're trying to do.

Journalists embedded with the US military in Iraq came under criticism for the deals that were made about what could and couldn't be covered. One understands that in war some rules might be necessary. But perhaps the willingness to agree to such embed rules made it easier for the disgracefully gullible coverage of WMD and the early course of the war by the press. The point is: there are many kinds of journalism, but we ought to be very clear what the expectations are and where the lines are drawn.
April 22, 2009 9:54 AM | | Comments (0)

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