Media mavens expose celeb culture in contentious confab

The traditional celebrity interview is dead, killed by publicists whose efforts to control coverage has led to dull interviews that have led the public to turn to unauthorized, photo-based gossip magazines. Several of the participants agreed with that premise at a Reuters/VNU Newsmaker panel titled "The Cult of the Celebrity--Who's Using Whom?"

The panelists who met Thursday night at the Reuters Building in Times Square included Jessica Coen, co-editor of the satirical gossip portal Gawker.com; Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min; publicist Ken Sunshine; Vanity Fair media columnist Michael Wolff; and The Hollywood Reporter deputy film editor Anne Thompson.

Moderated by Paul Holmes, Reuters' global editor of political and general news, the dialogue and Q&A; that followed were ostensibly about celebrity, but the discussion also turned to the media themselves and some of the participants' own outlets.

The debate began with a discussion of such celebrities as Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Jessica Simpson, who, Min cracked, are "famous for not being famous," doing little or nothing professionally and often gaining notoriety through reality shows. "A lot of celebrities have figured out very smart ways to use photographers to their benefit," said Min, citing the free goods they receive in exchange for exposure of supposedly "candid" pics. "Basically, their lives have become a photo opportunity, and there's money to be made, or not spent, through that relationship."

The 25-year-old Coen argued that "my generation has grown up with celebrities as omnipresent, selling everything from movies to tampons," leading to the feeling that we "have a degree of ownership over them" and a right to know about their private lives. Sunshine countered that not all celebs are created equal, citing clients Barbra Streisand and Leonardo DiCaprio as two who have chosen to maintain their privacy.

Sunshine, who has been intensely critical of paparazzi-driven publications, has staged a public battle of words over the "stalkerazzi" pics that have run in magazines like Min's Us. But he unexpectedly "applauded" the editor when she stated a policy against "invasive photos" taken in private situations or with dangerous tactics that put subjects under duress.

Wolff delved into the economic side of the issue, saying, "Covering celebrities is inexpensive, and that's a profound thing when you try to calculate why (the media) cover it. The people who take your pictures aren't on your payroll. We've created this economic model which works for the celebrities and the media."

The most contentious exchange occurred when Wolff went toe-to-toe with Min over their respective magazines' role in celebrity culture. "Some people are journalists, and what we get paid to do is try to find facts. Other people, and I mean no disrespect whatsoever, are in the business of selling magazines," Wolff said, shortly before turning to Min and saying, "Your mission is singular: to entertain your readers."

"Why does Vanity Fair put Paris Hilton topless on its cover?" Min shot back. "Is that different from Newsweek or Time, which puts Jesus on the cover like he's Jennifer Aniston?"

In the end, all seemed to concur with Thompson's analysis that "all these stars are getting way overexposed, and there's going to have to be a pullback. This overwhelming barrage of material is going to blow itself out."

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