Celebrities as opinion writers
The world would probably be fine without Jessica Alba dispatches on parenting and education. Photo: Getty images
When you’re a critic or a journalist, one of the main “criticisms” people - ‘Geoff of Newcastle’ types - like to throw at you is that “anyone can do it”.
On a basic level, Geoff of Newcastle is, of course, right: anyone can open a document and write 650-900 words on something zeitgeisty, and anyone can express an opinion.
Whether or not “anyone” can actually get their opinion printed, and be paid for it - because, unlike Geoff of Newcastle, an editor has decided that the writer’s opinion is worth printing - is another matter indeed.
This all goes out the window, however, if you’re a celebrity. It’s become de rigeur in recent years to get celebs to sound off on all manner of topics. Given that actual journalists are losing their jobs at a rate of knots, why not continue the swift journey to the middle and fill their vacated word-counts with the musings of those who breathe the rarefied air of Hollywood?
I appreciate that in some cases, it’s worthy of celebs to lend their spotlight to a particular cause. But do we really need to read Alba’s scintillating account of her own startup - “I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be great if there was one company I could get all my daily essentials from -- from diapers to cleaning to bath time -- and I could trust that they would be safe, eco-friendly, affordable, and effective, as well as designed beautifully and delivered to my doorstep?’” - and pretend that it’s actual journalism?
I prefer the approach of people like Elizabeth Banks, who has her own website and doesn’t pretend that it’s anything loftier than a casual conversation about nice homewares (etc) with an occasional heartfelt post about something important to her, values-wise.
Celebrities swanning in and tossing off an unpaid oped, commissioned for no reason other than the shrewd and eternal drive for page impressions, leaves me with a slightly dead feeling in my heart. (A similar feeling can be experienced by thinking deeply about the trend in travel writing for bored socialites to pitch holiday pieces because they have nothing better to do.) On the occasion that it occurs in print, the feeling is the same.
You see, I care about people valuing writing, and seeing it as something more than “content” that is whipped up to fill a page and ensure “clicks”. Not paying writers - usually via the great lie of the 21st century, “it’s good exposure!”, something the HuffPo is particularly guilty of - makes it easier to devalue their work, and easier for less scrupulous “aspiring writer” types to climb the ladder. It’s difficult to get someone to pay you an appropriate rate if there is someone who’s willing to do it for less, or for free.
(As Cristal Connors so sagely said, There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.)
Here in America, I can’t get an acting job if I’m not a member of Actors’ Equity. (Well, there’s also the matter of the vagaries of my particular visa, but that’s beside the point.) So why can these actors and “celebrities” muscle in on my territory as writer and union member?
You may read this and think I am taking it all too seriously, and you’re damn well right. I care about writing, and I care about journalism, and when someone swans in and takes column inches away from real writers simply by virtue of being more famous than them, I worry about the state of both.
There’s a piece I like to return to, in times of need, by academic and former Man Booker Prize judge Rick Gekovski. It was specifically about the culture of commenting on blogs, but his closing salvo fits the bill in this instance, too, I think: “That's the name of the game: everyone is entitled to their opinion. And the notion that some opinions are better than others - fairer, deeper and more cogent - seems to be slipping from our grasp.”
If the “anyone can do it” culture dictate that celebrities be able to regale us with their best oped writing, then surely its logic follows that I can, likewise, show up at the 20th Century Fox lot and sign on as Alec Baldwin for the day.
It’s a fair swap, I’d say.