Thoughts on The Price of Fame
By Ken K. Gourdin
Citing two examples (Shia Labeouf and Alec Baldwin), Salt Lake Tribune movie critic and media writer Sean P. Means recently observed, “What these guys want are the upsides of fame — the money, the exposure, the ability to choose projects — without the accountability.” Means’ piece can be found here (last accessed March 8, 2014): http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/57631332-223/famous-labeouf-baldwin-public.html.csp.
To be sure, it can be difficult for someone who has achieved fame to distinguish where their private persona begins and where their public one ends. It’s relatively easy for most of us to duck out of the spotlight when we want time away from it. However, this isn’t so for many people in public life – especially in our 24-hour, media-saturated society.
And, for better or for worse, media representatives once felt a responsibility to those they covered to avoid harming their public image by declining to report anything that would cast public figures in a negative light. However, that is no longer the case today. Negative information is much more likely to be widely disseminated than positive.
Further, the fact that so many more outlets and avenues exist today makes such dissemination much easier: while the turnaround time of information in an era in which print media dominated could be measured in days or weeks, today, affecting how someone is perceived often is as easy as pressing a button.
And more platforms and avenues for disseminating information also means that it’s easy for someone who would not have attracted much notice without them to become well known – to become “famous for being famous,” or worse, famous for all the wrong reasons.
As Means points out, a related issue is the responsibility that comes with having a larger platform because of one’s fame. Such a platform carries with it great power, and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben was right: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But many people in the public eye court publicity when it suits their purposes, and they shun it when it does not. As Means also points out, many of them want all of the power and none of the responsibility that comes with being in public life. One of those responsibilities is the duty to be well informed.
Many people in public life have expressed opinions on various issues. Like anyone else in the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution entitles them to do so without government interference. Like anyone else, the quality of those opinions depends on the soundness of the data upon which they are based.
All opinions aren’t created equal, and – as the old saying goes – while one is entitled to his own opinions, he’s not entitled to his own facts. However, hearers and viewers of those opinions too often fail to take the time necessary to ferret out underlying data and to evaluate it. Rather, they simply assume, “He’s famous; he must know what he’s talking about.”
Too often, those in public life don’t take the special care necessitated by the bigger platforms and the bigger forums their fame affords them to ensure that their publicly expressed views are based on sound data. Too often, the result is an ill-informed and prejudiced public, willing to believe what someone says simply because he’s famous – and they, and others, suffer the consequences of bad decisions as a result.
As I have often said, when it comes to commentary on issues of public interest, there are two kinds of people in the world: those to whom people listen because they know what they’re talking about, and those who think they know what they’re talking about merely because people listen to them. Sadly, those in the first category are becoming all too rare, while those in the second are becoming all too common.
Update, 23 April 2014: Ill-Informed Celebrity Sways an Equally Ill-Informed Public, and Nearly-Eradicated Childhood Diseases Have Re-Emerged as a Result – There is, perhaps, no better example of one being able to influence public opinion as a public figure despite one’s lack of expertise in the issue under discussion than that of Jenny McCarthy and vaccinations. Basically, McCarthy is more-or-less famous for her willingness to remove her clothing in front of a camera and to have the resulting pictures disseminated through any means possible to anyone who would like to view them. (I don’t know about anyone else, but heck, to me, that makes her an expert about anything she talks about within range of a camera and/or a microphone!) McCarthy claims that a vaccination is responsible for her son having autism (unless, of course, you believe her protestations that she has “never been anti-vaccination”).
In an April 21 op-ed in The New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni notes, “Because [McCarthy] posed nude for Playboy, dated Jim Carrey and is blond and bellicose, she has received platforms for this [anti-vaccine] message that her fellow nonsense peddlers might not have. She has spread the twisted word more efficiently than the rest.” Bruni’s op-ed can be found in its entirety here (last accessed today): http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/22/opinion/bruni-autism-and-the-agitator.html.
Herd immunity is declining, once-nearly-eradicated childhood diseases are reemerging, and thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of families are reaping a bitter harvest as a result. See, e.g., Joseph D. McInerney et al (Last revised September, 2012) Understanding Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases, Colorado Springs, Colo.: Biological Science Curriculum Study, 28, 31-35, accessed on line at the following address on May 1, 2014: http://www.science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih1/Diseases/guide/pdfs/nih_diseases.pdf33.