From this month’s nonstop reporting on Michael Jackson’s death, to the obsessive 24/7 coverage of O. J. Simpson’s “Trial of the Century” in the ’90s, it seems that this country can never get enough of a juicy celebrity story. Critics decry this preoccupation as voyeurism. But perhaps there’s a more commendable explanation for our fascination. After all, it’s often only while in the throes of such celebrity spectacles that the public is able to engage in productive debates about some of the most important issues, dilemmas, and philosophical questions that we face.
For example, would you or your friends have talked about animal rights a couple of years ago had NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting not come to light? For a while, it was the top discussion topic on sports radio: the intense coverage made animal abuse a more salient topic than any ad campaign PETA could have come up with. Or how about Michael Phelps’s bong hits, which helped bring the legalization debate back into the public square, or Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, which ignited discussions about sex education and the question of abstinence?
Even our understanding of such a difficult and sometimes taboo issue like AIDS/HIV owes a lot to the coverage given to celebrities who have been touched by it. As The New York Times pointed out at the time of Rock Hudson’s death, in 1985, the actor’s battle with AIDS “focused worldwide attention” on the disease and made him the “first major public figure to acknowledge [his infection] openly.” Similarly, Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he had contracted HIV from sex with a woman helped destroy the stereotype that HIV was a gay-only disease, and helped blacks openly discuss a virus that was disproportionately affecting African Americans.
As for O. J.’s murder trial, it set off one of the broadest legal debates in American history. More than 150 million of the 262 million people living in America watched or listened to the O. J. verdict (even my fourth-grade teacher let our class listen on the radio). The trial kept the country arguing about whether the legal system was truly blind to money, fame, and, most important, race. And the disparate black and white reactions to the “not guilty” verdict exposed the country’s ongoing racial polarization. Indeed, the O. J. trial may have created more discussion about racial discrimination in the courts than any event during the civil-rights movement.
Scores of regular people get pregnant, contract HIV, and stand trial without widespread notice by the general public. This is precisely why celebrity examples matter: when regular people grapple with these problems, there’s often very little open discussion, because those affected are too embarrassed. Celebrities may be embarrassed too, but because they’re public figures and are therefore fair game, we can feel free to observe, empathize, critique, and learn. We rely on these megastories about celebrities’ lives. Without them, it would be harder to make sense of our own.