Askia MuhammadColumnistsOpinion

MUHUMMAD: There’s Too Much Celebrity News

Congratulations to Beyoncé. Her picture of herself wearing only a bra and a veil, and revealing her stomach, swollen with twin babies she’s expecting, has become the most-liked Instagram photo ever. What is that about? It’s celebrity news.

While there has been a lively discussion this political season about the very real dangers of “fake news,” there is little concern about the spread of “celebrity news.”

Take, for example, the jibber-jabber going around about the White House Correspondents Dinner. Major news organizations are already devoting attention to which companies will or will not host after-parties and soirees to mingle with all the high-profile guests they will be inviting to the dinner. But the dinner is not until late April!

When President Barack Obama came into office, the Congressional Radio-Television Correspondents Association’s annual dinner was the “cat’s pajamas,” the “crème-de-la-crème” of elite Washington social events. Now it’s the White House Correspondents Dinner, and it’s now known as the “Nerd Prom” — a glitzy gathering among the otherwise nameless/faceless White House correspondents.

Before the takeover by the White House A-list crowd, the dinner got so big, it outgrew the ballroom at the Washington Hilton, where the smaller White House dinner is still held, and is now held at the Washington Convention Center. Then, the objective for reporters, who can by one ticket for themselves and one ticket for a guest, was to get high-profile members of Congress or Cabinet members as their guests.

Those guests were newsmakers, not celebrities! Now, the sky’s the limit. It’s “Red Carpet Mania,” and turns ordinary people into swooning fans.

One year, I landed Democratic presidential candidate Dr. Lenora Fulani as my guest. Social media did not exist back then, and the major corporate-owned media didn’t (and still don’t) pay any attention to a lonely black reporter with a fringe-candidate guest.

There is now a very busy cottage industry grown up around celebrity news. All of the over-the-air TV networks have prime-time celebrity “news” shows. So, we get to learn about “beefs” and “disses” exchanged among famous immature individuals, who behave very, very badly after they are paid obscene amounts of money for their performances.

Having a picture or a video “go viral” is the new ambition these days. Our young people aspire to be an “American Idol” or a first-round draft pick in some sport more than they desire to be teachers, engineers, achievers, good citizens.

Donald J. Trump is the unlikely president of the United States now, in large part because his celebrity status and brilliant exploitation of his celebrity “brand” earned him millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity, each and every week of the campaign.

It’s absurd to think that a sane government — a superpower even — would formulate and conduct its foreign policy via Twitter — 140 characters at a time. That’s the ultimate “celebritification” of the news: every single morning now, someone gets up and scrutinizes Trump’s Twitter feed for “news.” Even the stock performance of Fortune 500 firms can be sent tumbling or climbing by one of these tweets.

Today, there is hardly a newspaper front page without at least one or two stories referring to tweets by this one or by that one. It’s not “fake,” it’s just “tweets.” To me they seem so inconsequential, like cotton candy, nothing but spun sugar, empty, useless calories: celebrity news.

I remember visiting my childhood home Los Angeles, and seeing “Donnel,” one of my childhood friends. He joined the army after high school, I went to college. When I saw him 20 years later, he told me he was then attending L.A. City College “studying film.” Today, it’s social media and if someone can make him/herself widely known by only one name, then that person will have arrived.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has an expression which describes the modern obsession with celebrity news. He says some behavior we engage in is nothing more than “majoring in minors,” or wasting our time on things that are not important.

But the Rev. Jackson is himself over the hill, a has-been. Who pays attention to him anymore? He’s no celebrity.

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Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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