TCS Daily

The Titillo-Americans

By Robert McHenry - June 16, 2005 12:00 AM

If you know the name of Paris Hilton's consort, you could be a saprophyte.

If you know the current state of play among JLo, Bennifer, Katie, Tom, Kirsten, Nicole, or Britney, you could be a saprophyte.

If you watch Entertainment Tonight often enough to refer to it in conversation simply as "ET," you could be a saprophyte.

And above all, if you broke off what you were doing last Monday afternoon to listen to streaming audio of the Michael Jackson verdict, you are beyond a doubt saprophytic.

My Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines saprophytic as "obtaining nourishment from the products of organic breakdown and decay." Where in this currently modern world of today are there more frequent breakdowns, and more lurid decay, than in the celebritysphere? Large sections of the magazine stand at Wal-Mart, great swaths of our newspapers, much of the "news," and entire cable channels, not to mention fan blogs and message boards, are devoted to little else. The people who produce this, er, content, are not dumb, whatever else they may be. They know all there is to usefully know about their audience, the voyeuristic community of Titillo-Americans.

In my state yesterday, the governor (a celebrity in his own right, but lay that aside) announced a special statewide election by which some fundamental issues of our governance will be decided. It is anticipated that hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent in bitter, bitter contests over each of his proposals. Yet when I tuned my television to the 6 pm local news broadcast, the lead story was the Michael Jackson verdict, an event that will materially affect about 127 people, counting the jury, which now gets to go home and drink.

Not only was this the lead story, it was the only story for the next 16 minutes. How long does it take to report that Jackson was acquitted on all charges? About that long. But that was not enough for the Titillo-American audience and those that do quite nicely, thank you, pandering to it. Indeed, the story was not thought to be complete until we had been provided with a live report from in front of a local Tower Records store, where, we were solemnly informed, all was quiet -there had been no run on Michael Jackson recordings. So, thank a kindly Providence, there's time enough yet to get that gold edition of "Thriller" for Gramps for Father's Day.

This morning's newspaper (and, by the way, I speak from within a metropolitan population of 3 million centered on a city of well over 1 million, so Podunk this ain't) devoted two-thirds of the front page (three-fourths above the fold) to our favorite non-malefactor and altogether 2 ½ pages out of 12 in the A section. Was there really that much left to know about this man or this case? Is there anything now remaining? I'll give you pretty good odds that something will turn up. And then something more.

Who will turn it up and tell a waiting world? The other part of the unholy triad of celebrityness, the parasites. These are the industry shills posing as journalists who "report," usually loudly and breathlessly, on the doings of and goings-on among a hundred or two not very interesting people. Take a look at your daily newspaper and note how much space is given over to chitchat about movies and television and those who are engaged in them. In most urban papers this bumfodder appears Monday through Saturday under the heading "Entertainment." On the seventh day the Entertainment editor rests, and the stuff moves over to occupy most of the, pardon me, "Arts" section.

Consider: The television and motion picture industries (whether they are two or one) produce their dramatic or comic products, which naturally we watch. Then they produce more spectacle to celebrate themselves for what they have done, in the form of awards programs, which we watch. One of these spectacles is called "The People's Awards," on the pretense that, the industry having failed to celebrate itself sufficiently, the audience has demanded yet more; so we get to watch our own demand being met. All the while a slew of other television shows weekly or daily give us "exclusive" peeks behind the scenes of the original shows and the awards programs, and we dutifully watch. How many separate reports air or get into print each year concerning whether Billy Crystal will host this year's Academy Awards? And in the end, given that whether he will or will not, someone will and at some point it will all be over, what difference do any of those reports make to anyone? But we watch. And we have not yet looked to the hours and reams devoted to the very public private lives of the anointed, which of course we watch.

Final question: When do we do something useful?

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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