My colleagues in criticism at the Project for Excellence in Journalism have compiled a special report titled “Anna Nicole Smith—Anatomy of a Feeding Frenzy” (pdf) that pulls data from the organization’s ongoing tally of how the press apportions coverage to the biggest stories.
The PEJ report finds that in the 23 days between Smith’s death and her burial, the news hole devoted to her story by 48 outlets in the five media sectors it samples made it one of the interval’s three big stories (the other two being the Iraq debate and the presidential campaign). Most press outlets covered the Smith story heavily the day she died (Feb. 8) and the day after, and then gave it only abbreviated treatment. But cable news—and, to a lesser extent, some morning TV shows—submerged themselves in the topic for the entire three-week period, the study finds.
The report doesn’t disparage cable news for burning nearly 800 minutes on Smith—at least not explicitly. Instead, it quotes on-air tongue-clicking by broadcasters. NBC’s Brian Williams, the report states, complained about “our current culture of celebrity and media these days, when all the major cable news networks switched over to live coverage [of Smith’s death] this afternoon.” MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann dismissed Smith, saying she was “principally famous merely for being famous,” and CNN’s Paula Zahn distanced herself from cable’s coverage by calling it “America’s newest guilty pleasure.”
Guilty pleasure, my ass. Nobody who reported the Anna Nicole Smith story or viewed it on TV need apologize. The Anna Nicole Smith death trip didn’t catch fire on cable just because she was a bosomy, semifamous blonde who checked out at the age of 39. For 15 years, she had been gathering chunks of fame the same way a successful World of Warcraft player gathers gold, armor, and potions: again and again. A Playboy cover girl in 1992, she became Hef’s “Playmate of the Year” in 1993, and then won a Guess Jeans modeling contract. The following year brought bit parts in movies and status as New Yorkmagazine’s “White Trash Nation” cover girl.
By this point, Smith was no more accomplished, newsworthy, or interesting than, say, Carmen Electra is today. What paved her path to renown was her 1994 marriage to an elderly oil billionaire who had the superb timing to die in 1995. For the next 11 years, Smith earned almost as many headlines for the legal fight she waged for a portion of the codger’s estate as she did for her performances as model/actress/spokeswoman/ reality-show star.
Fat, no-talent, bleach blondes from Texas with breast implants aren’t rare. But add a little show-business success to that package and top it with a potential half-billion dollars, and you’ve got a story. When Smith won a procedural round before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, even the New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse had to pay 654 words of attention to the gal.
Smith didn’t become a pulp journalism icon until the last nine months of her life. In June 2006, she announced her pregnancy, and practically everyone who was on a first-name basis with her claimed paternity. Her gathering of gold, armor, and potions accelerated as she gave birth to a daughter in the Bahamas on Sept. 7, 2006, and lost her 20-year-old son under mysterious circumstance three days later.
Best-selling fiction is made from lesser material than this. Mystery No. 1: Who is the father? Mystery No. 2: How did her son die? Mystery No. 3: Why did Smith and her lawyer join together in a wacky “commitment” ceremony on Sept. 28 instead of getting married like normal people? The Fox News Channel followed the story most closely then, too, airing at least 13 stories pegged to Smith between her daughter’s birth and Smith’s death.
When Smith finally died in February, also under mysterious circumstances, there were so many angles to cover that you didn’t have to know the back story to be intrigued. Lawsuits by the bushel, countersuits, DNA tests, forensic exams, toxicological investigations, methadone prescriptions, residency battles, legal disputes over where and when to bury Smith, and the ridiculous (televised) * hearings presided over by a Broward County, Fla., judge, not to mention control of a potential $500 million to the person named the guardian of Smith’s daughter.
I’d be the last to deny the prurient appeal of the Smith story, or of the O.J. Simpson, Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, and runaway-bride stories that cable news capitalized on previously. But such stories captivate readers and viewers not just because they’re tawdry but because they’re complex. To stay on top of the Smith story once it got going, you really had to pay attention. Far from being useless pop entertainment, cable’s coverage taught viewers reams about civil procedure, pharmacology, and police work. I’ll admit that I learned a thing or two in the 30 minutes I watched.
According to the PEJ study, 32 percent of Fox News Channel’s coverage * between Feb. 8 and March 2 was devoted to the Anna Nicole Smith story (for MSNBC, the figure was 21 percent; for CNN, 14 percent).
These numbers make it sound as if cable over-covered the Smith story, force-feeding viewers. But cable viewers are a notoriously transient and choosy lot, clicking in and out of stations regularly. Few will sit through the third iteration of the same story without tuning away. It could be that by expanding the number of Smith minutes telecast—often repeating the same material—Fox performed a valuable service by connecting with the nonhabitual viewers who tuned in to the channel knowing it had gone all Smith all the time. If rebroadcasting coverage to reach more viewers is wrong, how come nobody criticizes PBS stations for airing “encores” of documentaries? At least cable news stations write a fresh lede when they recycle news.
Perhaps the Smith coverage doesn’t advance democracy in quite the same way gavel-to-gavel C-SPAN telecasts do. But the demand for natural disaster, tragedy, crime, murder coverage, and other “sensational” news has always ranked at the top of reader and viewer preferences. Giving the audience what it wants shouldn’t automatically be considered a crime.
I watched 30 minutes of the Anna Nicole Smith death trip on cable TV, and it didn’t hurt me a bit. Shall I print up T-shirts that affirm this and distribute to readers? Send your views to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Correction, April 5, 2007: The original version of this article erred in its statement of the proportion of cable news coverage devoted to the Smith story. The percentages stated apply to all coverage, not just the top five stories. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The story also incorrectly stated that the Broward County judicial hearings were paternity hearings. They were to resolve the disposition of Smith’s remains. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)