Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Celebrity Epoch

So, back in May I received an inquiry from Amelia Pang, a reporter for the Epoch Times. I have to admit that I was not familiar with that paper. Here is how they describe themselves:

Freedom of the press and humanity are the foundation of The Epoch Times; our beginnings hailed from a great need to provide uncensored news to a people immersed in propaganda and censorship in China.

Having witnessed events like Tiananmen Square and the persecution of the spiritual group Falun Gong, and at a great risk to themselves and their loved ones, a group of Chinese-Americans started publishing The Epoch Times in the Chinese language in the U.S. Some reporters in China were jailed, and some suffered severe torture.

Integrity and truthfulness in reporting, together with the stories that really matter, are cornerstones to The Epoch Times.

The first English edition launched online in 2003 followed by the first print edition in 2004. Our beginnings have instilled in The Epoch Times staff an unwavering commitment to objective reporting and socially responsible business practices, as well as respect for human rights and freedom.

Quite admirable, don't you agree? And here, I can show you what the paper looks like, since Amelia was kind enough to send me a copy of the issue with her story:

Anyway, Ms. Pang explained that she was working on a story about entertainment news shows (an oxymoron in many ways), and how they focus on celebrity gossip and scandals. In particular, her focus was on a South Korean show whose host bucks this trend, and instead interviews celebrities in a more meaningful manner about how they achieved their success, about their talents and their efforts. She assumed, correctly, that I was not familiar with Korean television, and just wanted my comments on how media portrayals of celebrities affect American culture.

As you may know, this is a topic I've written on many times before, so here are the comments I provided her with:

Celebrities are creations of our media, and would not exist without them. They are products of publicity, of the machinery of fame, and in particular of our audiovisual media, of photography, film, and sound recording, radio, television, and the internet. That's why they achieve fame, by conforming to the requirements of these media, by being photogenic, telegenic, having an attractive or distinctive voice, appearance, and personality. Different media outlets may vary in how they portray celebrities, but they cannot help but emphasize the celebrity's image, and with it the celebrity's relatively superficial qualities, the qualities that make the celebrity amusing, entertaining, a subject of gossip, perhaps of pity or mockery. At best the celebrity is someone we can relate to, someone just like us, as opposed to the traditional idea of a hero, who would be someone we can look up to, an object of admiration if not worship, a model to aspire to, someone whose accomplishments have made the world a better place, someone who has made history. Celebrities appear on television, so it should come as no surprise that what is emphasized, what audiences pay attention to and remember is their appearance. Anyone who wants to be famous today has to fall into the celebrity mold and conform to the biases of the electronic media, which accounts for the present state of politics, and leadership in many other sectors of society.

The Korean host you mention strikes me as trying to work against the bias of the contemporary media environment, at least to some extent, and that is highly commendable, and probably much more effective than the various calls for "character education" that have been issued from cultural conservatives. The problem is that if you go too far in going against the grain, you'll get something like C-SPAN, programming that almost no one watches. And of course no matter what the substance of the conversation, appearing on television is always going to be a performance, and what audiences will take away from it are the performance values, the ability of the celebrity to play his or her role well, which includes self-disclosure, honesty being the one value emphasized on the electronic media, not honesty in the traditional sense, but simply self-disclosure, revealing intimate, personal details that make the celebrity easy to identify with, or look down upon. As Napoleon put it, "no man is a hero to his valet," and with celebrities we are all put into the position of valets, privy to their most intimate secrets, either revealed against their will by gossip reporters and paparazzi, or more often than not, with the cooperation of the celebrity, as part of their efforts to maintain and increase their fame.

Out of all this, not very much was used, to be honest, which is why it's good to have a blog to post the comments on, so it isn't all for naught. The story itself bore the title, How This Korean Entertainment Host Is Changing the Way We View Celebrities, and it was posted on the Epoch Times website on Friday, May 22nd, but got bumped off of the paper edition due to late breaking news, and didn't appear in print until the following Friday, May 29th. It appeared in the paper's Arts and Entertainment section, featured on the section's front page:

And here's what the full article looks like in print:

But of course, I don't expect you to read it off of the image, so let me help you out, or if you want, scroll up and click on the link to read it on the paper's website. But for those of you that prefer to read it here and now, with my occasional interjections, Pang's piece begins like this:

NEW YORK—Hyesoo Yoon is an entertainment television producer and host who refuses to cover gossip or scandals. No inside scoops on startling affairs; no big reveals of secret pasts. Yet somehow, her show is growing in popularity.

Yoon is the trilingual host of Hallyu World, a program that covers South Korean film and fashion. The show has caught on around the world since its creation a year ago.

Entertainment websites in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and even the Middle East, translate and repost Yoon’s content within a few hours of its airing.

In conversation, Yoon switches back and forth casually between Korean, English, and Chinese as she paces through the New Tang Dynasty (NTD) television station in Manhattan.

Now comes an interesting reveal regarding media connections, not to imply that this suggests any conflict of interest, but simply to note that this sort of thing is quite commonplace among mass media conglomerates, and often goes unacknowledged:

Her show airs on NTD, a sister media of Epoch Times, which is a New York-based station that broadcasts globally, including directly into parts of mainland China, via satellite to provide an uncensored Chinese-language alternative to China’s state-run media.

Now on to what makes Yoon different from others of her ilk:

“I never get excited when I meet a celebrity,” said Yoon, a 28-year-old with soft and unworried eyes. She thinks fans should see celebrities as the humans that they are, beyond the mask created by an entertainment industry.

Although many Americans may not be keen followers of Korean pop culture (besides Gangnam Style), Yoon’s attitude toward celebrity reporting is worth noticing in the United States.

Yoon’s uncommon approach to celebrity reporting is intriguing considering that the media’s portrayal of celebrities is influential in the construct of a society’s identity and culture.

So now, it's time for some comments on the influence of media and celebrity on culture and society:
Girls and young women today continue to imitate Rihanna’s half-shaved head hairstyle from 2013, while Lady Gaga, Kate Moss, and Kim Kardashian’s “naked dresses” have inspired a trend of sheer clothing. People identify with this projected “freedom,” where one lives unrestrained by social norms.

“The power of the celebrity, then, is to represent the active construction of identity in the social world,” P. David Marshall, a prominent cultural critic, wrote in his book Celebrity And Power: Fame and Contemporary Culture.

Although celebrities hold the power to set trends and influence what millions of people like or don’t like, the focus of entertainment news in the United States and around the world remains superficial: Toned bodies. Adorably in love. Happy pregnancies. Secret pasts. Betrayals. Bacchanal social gatherings.

Why are people obsessed with these types of celebrity stories, and what does it mean?

At this point, we get a new section, with the heading of "To Know the Renown" and a nice reference to the seminal work of Daniel Boorstin, although I would note that his argument was precisely the opposite, that celebrities are not heroes, and Boorstin pointed to the case of Charles Lindbergh as the turning point, not Mary Pickford:

The original celebrities were heroes. People wanted to know more about them so that they could learn to imitate their admirable qualities.

“[The hero] is a man or woman of great deeds. … The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media,” historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

The change in how media covered celebrities came with Mary Pickford, the very first movie star. Pickford was a Canadian-American actress who rose to fame in the early 1900s.

Boorstin's book is one that I highly recommend, required reading for any card-carrying media ecologist. But for more on Pickford, let's hear from my colleague, Kimberly Casteline:

Before Pickford, actors and actresses in the film industry were contract workers and they were seen as interchangeable, explained Kimberly Casteline, a media and culture academic at Fordham University.
“Mary Pickford was the first celebrity that Hollywood studio systems promoted as a personality in and of herself,” Casteline said in a telephone interview. “That was basically what promoted the idea that the actor themselves, the body of the actor, is a commodity rather than their labor.”

Since the late 1920s, the American press and its gossip columnists have been producing celebrity stories to fulfill our desire to know the renowned.

Since then, it’s been more or less a process of decline, as the industry focuses more and more on the artificial image.

At this point, the reporter returns to her discussion of Yoon's significance, as a new section with the heading, "Thought-Provoking Entertainment News," begins:

During Yoon’s 14-hour flights every two months from her office in Manhattan to her interviews in Korea, she wonders what makes these celebrities tick.

She pores over other media’s articles and tries to fill in what she thinks is missing. Who are they really beyond the carefully molded personas? More important, what can people take away from her interview?

“I’m looking to provide something more meaningful,” she said.

Yoon’s interviews almost remind one of a New Yorker magazine profile. A viewer walks away with a sense of who this celebrity is—what drives them, what their fears are. There’s often a positive moral component in her interviews.

When Yoon interviewed Lee Seung-gi, a popular Korean actor and singer, she asked him if there were any scenes from his movies that he could relate to in his life.

Lee said he could relate to the plot of Love Forecast, a romantic comedy where he plays a frustrated protagonist who is in love with his longtime friend, a weather broadcaster. The broadcaster has feelings for him too, but would rather fall in love with a different man one after another so she could enjoy being in a constant state of elation.

“Young energetic people always like a relationship full of excitement … if you get too attached to it you will end up solely chasing after something imaginary,” Lee told Yoon.

“Men and women cannot feel excited to see each other’s face everyday,” Lee said. “I think there’s a process when love turns into trust, loyalty, and friendship.”

Yoon leaves it at that. She chooses not to ask about the rumors that surround his dating life.

Her show Hallyu World is based on the premise that the audience isn’t asking to hear about scandals and rumors about celebrities. So Yoon doesn’t report on them.

By now you must be wondering, what about my quote? Or maybe you forgot? Well, if nothing else, I get the last word on this story, so wait for it, wait for it, here it comes now:

“The Korean host you mention strikes me as trying to work against the bias of the contemporary media environment, at least to some extent,” Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University said in an email. “That is highly commendable.”

And there you have it. My official media ecological seal of approval, that by all accounts she does not seem to be adding to the process of amusing or amazing ourselves to death, at least not as much as most others in the business they call "entertainment news" (entertainews? newsertainment? or what?). That is the epoch we live in, of celebrity, television, and the electronic media environment.

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