I never met Richard “Dick” Stolley but he was something of a legend in the field of magazines that worshipfully cover celebrities. The founding editor of People magazine, he died in June at the age of 92. I know this because I read an article about it in People magazine that casually mentions that People magazine is the most successful magazine of all time. Now, come on. You have to admire that. How meta. The final, cheerful, self-promoting word on the man who in 1963 secured the Abraham Zapruder footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for Life magazine is how he elevated — almost always in a positive manner — actors, musicians, artists, billionaires, news anchors and various reality television types who are just famous for being famous.
People magazine still sells millions of copies but it’s hardly the dominant cultural presence that it was years ago in the era of Princess Diana and O.J. Simpson. Part of that is surely the decline of the magazine industry generally. Just take a look at any newsstand. Both magazines and newspapers are not as prosperous or widely circulated in the digital era. Sure, most of those still in business have online versions but they don’t generate the kind of revenue that print editions once did. Neither advertisers nor subscribers are willing to pony up the dollars. The average reader would rather get free content on social media sites they can easily access by cellphone.
I would not normally ask my fellow Americans to shed tears for any slackening in the celebrity journalism/gossip sheet trade. Does the nation suffer if there is diminished coverage of the return of Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez or Bennifer 2.0 as its known in the biz (and by diminished coverage I mean that they may once in a while have a moment of privacy)? Surely not. But then it occurred to me, if Americans aren’t consuming the latest speculation on exactly how Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost are dealing with diapers and the breastfeeding of their new baby, what are they consuming? Sadly, it’s probably misinformation on social media.
Just think about it. Why do QAnon’s easily disproven claims of a “PizzaGate” child sex trafficking ring get so much attention? Why do so many of our fellow Americans fall for elaborate hoaxes like how microchips are implanted with COVID-19 vaccinations? Why does anyone believe there’s even a slight chance that the Arizona vote “audit,” now apparently interrupted by a COVID outbreak within Cyber Ninjas, will produce a credible report? It’s because these wild-eye, preposterous theories are the equivalent of candy.
Real journalism with its complexities and nuance is a serving of steamed broccoli; elaborate conspiracies that sound like something lifted from a bad comic book are just far easier, tastier and more fun to digest. They have villains who are practically twirling their moustaches. Who has time to consider the well-established but admittedly complex nature of vaccine development when you can get tall tales of implanted microchips that allow the government or possibly Bill Gates to keep track of you?
But you know what else is fun? Celebrity gossip.
So here’s my pitch. America needs to go back to those innocent days when we could focus more on intrigue in the British royal family and the dating lives of Hollywood A-listers and less on potentially ruinous misinformation. That’s right. We need to Make America Gossip Again. We need to have more online arguments over Lady Gaga’s dog walker and fewer over vaccine mandates. The logic here is irrefutable. Far less is at stake in Ben Affleck’s love life (sorry, Mr. Affleck) than putting tens of millions of Americans at risk by continued vaccine hesitancy. The star of “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” is just going to have to take one for the team.
There are any number of ways to accomplish this. The government could pay for People subscriptions to every household. That sounds expensive but presumably Uncle Sam would get a good rate like doctors and dentists. The largesse could be shared with Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair and the like (but not the National Enquirer; let’s keep some minimum standards). Or, better yet, BuzzFeed could just beam celebrity news directly into everyone’s phone like the Emergency Alert System (”Attention. Attention. Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost have named their son Cosmo. If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been given instructions on child-naming…”).
We might even consider some form of compensation for those unlucky individuals who will find themselves the subject of ceaseless coverage like any member of the Kardashian family. We might, for example, allow them to build enormous empires as social media “influencers” or employ ghost writers to produce bestselling autobiographies or just do a ton of commercials and make lucrative appearances. Oh, wait. They already do that. Never mind. If a celebrity like Donald Trump can jump from the cover of People into the Oval Office then public attention can shift from Mr. Trump’s favorite conspiracy theorists back to where it belongs — to Bennifer and whether the happy couple has been shopping for an engagement ring.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at email@example.com.