Celebrities as opinion writers

The world would probably be fine without Jessica Alba dispatches on parenting and education.

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?

The Huffington Post is really at the crest of the celebrity oped wave: they’ve got James Franco blogging, Alec Baldwin sharing his thoughts on politics, Jessica Alba on parenting and education...

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.

13 comments

  • "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"

    Welcome to Microeconomics 101 or, as I often like to call it, real life.

    You're a participant at one point on the demand curve and one point on a supply curve dependong on what you're offering or wanting. The price will be set where those curves meet. Sometimes, that won't be at the point you're at.

    All of these things are in business to make money. If they can make more money by using a celebrity (lower cost and more clicks) then they'll go with that rather than a "real writer" (not sure how you can define real writing in this sphere - doesn't really require any specific skill or aptitude).

    You can always try to protect your labour supply by starting a Journalists Guild and require that all published pieces come from a member of said guild. Good luck with that.

    Commenter
    Bender
    Date and time
    November 23, 2012, 8:53AM
    • While people are thirsty for drosh, drosh will rule. A side issue is that anyone can call themselves a journalist - hence all the talking heads on breakfast shows think their journos, reporters standing in fromt of things think they are, as did all those high calibre newspaper people at the News of the World.

      Sadly there is a decreasing level of analysis in most articles and reporting, we replace it with descriptions of whats happened, with so narky summary passed off as clever reporting. Its grim and a bit sad!

      Commenter
      Historia
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 23, 2012, 11:56AM
  • I feel the same way about people who write for newspapers or news websites because they knew someone who already worked there. I feel the same way about someone who employs someone from their own clique to write for a newspaper or news website that they write for.

    Commenter
    Ray
    Location
    Sunshine
    Date and time
    November 23, 2012, 9:18AM
    • What happens when they have degrees in said field? Are they not entitled to a career change?

      Commenter
      Porter
      Location
      Adelaide
      Date and time
      November 23, 2012, 9:45AM
      • This article reeks of the "green-eyed monster". In case you haven't noticed the digital age has affected a large number of industries, journalism included. The "anyone can do it" mentality applies to a lot of things now making traditional roles of the past obsolete. However if you are truly talented at what you do then you will have nothing to fear - just having an above average ability is no longer enough.
        The irony I find in this article is that journalism and the media are always the first to point out celebrities and their failings. But now celebrities are moving in on the journalism turf - life is not fair. Well boo hoo! What makes you think that your opinion carefully constructed and intelligently written is more important or wanted than say Lady Gaga talking about poverty? Of course people are more interested in what celebrities are going to write, not some journo whose they will forget once they close this article down.
        And if you want to turn up to the film studios and be Alec Baldwin for the day - go for it. But dont whinge in some article you write about it later on if you dont succeed.......

        Commenter
        Mark
        Location
        Inner west
        Date and time
        November 23, 2012, 9:52AM
        • Rupert Murdoch ruined journalism years ago!

          Commenter
          Dino
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          November 23, 2012, 9:59AM
          • I thought we had to blame Tony Abbott for everything.......

            Commenter
            Carstendog
            Location
            Here
            Date and time
            November 23, 2012, 12:39PM
        • Newspapers (and news websites) are in the business of making money. If having a celebrity write articles drives views and makes them more money, they will do it. It may offend your journalistic ideals or whatever but that's the real world.

          Commenter
          Hurrow
          Date and time
          November 23, 2012, 10:40AM
          • I don’t think you sound jealous- or green eyed at all Clem.
            It takes a really strong voice with conviction to make a great piece of writing. (Even the really writing I disagree with-sometimes when something has the hell written out of it, it’s just great writing.)
            Unfortunately too many people don’t see fantastic language, just whatever agenda is being set by the writer. I’m often of the opinion that sometimes it doesn’t matter what is being said, it’s how it is being said. A great writer (such as yourself) keeps me interested with nods to pop-culture, a wicked sense of humour and being relatable.
            So much of what is purported as news is opinion, and it is opinion shouted with thumbs in ears yelling ‘LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!’ And nothing really says ‘LALALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!’ then the writing of someone who really doesn’t want to enter into a discussion about why they feel the way the do; like celebrity opinion writers.

            Commenter
            _yardy
            Date and time
            November 23, 2012, 10:48AM
            • The difference, as far as I can tell, between the Jessica Alba's and the Elizabeth Banks', is that the former is trying to sell you something, which is rarely good grounds for journalism. Even James Franco is selling something, though that something would appear to be his own (alleged) artistic merit as a writer.

              When celebrities aren't selling something useless like handmade, eco-friendly gloves you can wear while changing the diaper of your adopted foreign baby - or worse, themselves! - when they're instead writing on a topic with which they have uncommon authority or insight, then they are free to play celebrity journalist. Otherwise, in the wise words of the internet, they should GTFO.

              Commenter
              MMS
              Date and time
              November 23, 2012, 11:11AM

              More comments

              Comments are now closed