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December 21, 2003

Paris Hilton Does The Old Grey Lady: Best Media Porn Of December 2003

Ranked #4 on the Lycos 100 for 2003, Paris Hilton couldn’t be a much more popular search item. Up until the last few months, the 22-year-old grand daughter of hotel magnate, Conrad Hilton, was known just for being young, rich and attractive. Toward the end of the year, however, her popularity skyrocketed with the debut of the Fox television show “The Simple Life,” a take-off on the old “Green Acres” program. At the same time, her notoriety was also enhanced by the release of a highly compromising home video, provided to the press by a former boyfriend.

One thing Ms. Hilton’s popularity demonstrates is the profoundly different demographics of the web audience as compared to that of Big Media. If any segment of mass media is losing the battle for the younger audience, it’s the newspaper market. (The fact the New York Times is nick-named “The Old Grey Lady” couldn’t be more telling.) But print media is not going away without a fight. One strategy the big city publishers are pursuing is the distribution of indie-like city papers with shorter, trendier articles that supposedly appeal to a younger audience.

The “old guard” press is also tuning up its “style” coverage with more attention to the young, the hip and the urban. If you follow some of the more well known “popular culture” blogs, the Sunday Style section of The New York Times has come in for more than its share of mention lately. Over consecutive weeks, they did a feature on the state of on-line dating (a piece which was notably more up-to-date than a concurrent cover story in the NYT Magazine); the youth migration to Iowa to work on political campaigns; and the tendency for men in the dating scene to seek back-up support from Viagra.

To the extent newspapers and print media are facing pressure from the more youth-oriented, “edge” culture or “low brow” offerings of the internet and cable television, they are also being “helped” by the blurring of the lines between “high brow” and tabloid journalism.

To that end, the Los Angeles Times has been as aggressive as anyone this year in covering salacious scandals involving figures such as Phil Spector, Robert Blake, Kobe Bryant (#6 on the Lycos list) and Michael Jackson (Lycos #73).

As personalities and trends find traction on the Internet, it seems the “more respectable” media is also finding ways to get in on the action. In covering faux personalities such as Ms. Hilton (see my entry on Frank Rich’s commentary), it provides the newspaper its own platform to revel in pornographic fanfare and exhibitionism.

For example, The New York Times found the opportunity on December 9th not just to preview Ms. Hilton’s new show, but also run a photo of her and co-star Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel) on the cover of the Arts section. Interestingly, the accompanying review wasn’t a review at all. Rather, the writer took the opportunity to suggest how the existing plot could be spun into a scenario that was even more sexually provocative.

Two days later, the Washington Post ran an article by Tina Brown, reviewing Ms. Hilton’s cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live, and her status as a cultural icon. Far from analytical or insightful, this piece was primarily a recitation of Ms. Hilton’s “soft core” exploits.

Not to be left out, Fortune Magazine jumped on the bandwagon on December 22. The angle they used to leverage Ms. Hilton had to do with the conspicuous consumption that takes place around the holidays. Although the article didn’t have much to do with the celebrity, it wasn’t shy about the association. The title of the article was: “Admit It: You, Too, Are Paris Hilton.”

I believe there is an additional aspect to Ms. Hilton that encourages appropriation. It’s not just that she’s a Hilton. Plenty of people have climbed the social ladder by virtue of his or her namesake. It’s her whole name. The psychologist, Milton Erickson, would have marveled at such a name. He probably would have said that the pairing of the romantic French capital with a famous hotel chain was, in itself, some form of erotic autosuggestion.

To be identified in such a way is to basically foresake any true self-reference. Paris is not a person, she is an iconographic collage. Before anyone gets too concerned about her exploitation, one should realize she was virtually destined for the public domain.

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