When serious news goes pop

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

I’m an optimist, really, and so I have to believe that Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer absolutely hated their most recent big assignments at ABC: Barbara having to interview Justin Timberlake, Diane hunkering down with Jennifer Lopez.
I felt sorry for both of them, that they should be reduced to this, even in the sacred name of The Sweeps.
ABC News has more than its share of problems right now, and it would be mean to look for reasons to pick on them. But you don’t have to look for reasons when they leap right out of the TV set and into your face.
And we’re going to try hard in this column not to refer to Walters and Sawyer as the network’s news “divas” or dueling superstars or queens of the air or any of that other sexist guff. It’s true that they are not as close as sisters, nor even sisters-in-law. They are keen competitors, both with other networks and within ABC News. But they’re good journalists who deserve respect and who were both insulted by having to spend so much time interviewing two dunderheads who are best covered in sound bites on “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood”-you know, the kind of TV that’s strictly dopey dumb-dumb, as low as you can go and not have men in tights doing figure-four leg locks.
There’s so much more Low TV than High TV, it isn’t funny.
Talent drought
I swear I heard Timberlake, in the course of an interview I couldn’t bear to watch all of, talk about his position “as an artist”-part of an empty soliloquy on the trials and traumas of recording his first solo album. Walters, who had just returned from another epochal encounter with no less a world figure (and no more, either) than Fidel Castro, must have had to paste her eyelids open for this one. You just knew she wanted to tell that little snip to stop whining and mewling and get the hell out of her sight.
Instead, she had to ask him about the big breakup with bouncy Britney Spears, that fascinating topic that apparently has vast numbers of American viewers on the edges of their couches. Maybe if there were an underground porno reel of the two of them circulating on the Internet (well, there is, but it’s apparently a fake), then we could work up a fraction of a smidgen of interest. No, on second thought-not even then.
Only a week or so after ABC devoted an hour of prime time to the Walters-Timberlake encounter, Sawyer met Lopez for a “special edition” of “PrimeTime Live,” also probably the worst edition of “PrimeTime Live.” The challenge to Sawyer was to keep from hating herself during the interview-not to try to bring a shy little Lopez out of her shell. Oh no, this kid was anything but reticent about spilling beans by the ton. She was born to bask in the glamorizing glow of klieg lights.
It was, perhaps, her finest performance, not that she’s known for great ones. She squirmed, she wriggled, she tittered, she bubbled over, she flirted with the camera until it was all but tumescent. To say she enjoys the attention is like saying pigs are partial to slop. This is an individual who bills and coos with herself-no other party needed. And as she billed and cooed-and giggled and fluttered (stopping just short of eating the furniture)-a perplexing question popped into my head: What’s she famous for again? She’s noted for her, uhhh, what? Her which? Her way with-let’s see now-her way with interviewers maybe? Her way with photographers from Us magazine?
She’s this big star but her list of accomplishments, of memorable triumphs, seems a mite short. Mainly she plays the part of the oft-photographed romantic partner of Ben Affleck, another of the big so-whats of our time. Affleck has made a few movies, been great or even distinctive in none of them, and yet is in the celebrity magazines and on the celebrity TV shows every bloody week. He’s famous for who he’s courting. Their mutual fames feed on one another and create-a Frankenstein monster.
Ben and Jennifer shop for a car. Ben and Jennifer romp down Rodeo Drive. Ben and Jennifer share a discreet smooch at a chic restaurant. Oh wait, one of the cameras jammed; that’s OK, they’ll do it again. Got enough, boys? At the beginning of “Singin’ in the Rain,” Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen play two movie stars who oblige the press so eagerly they all but throw money at reporters covering them. They’re supposed to be a parody. Now along comes a couple who behave in real life with more outrageous self-adoration than the satirical spoofers did.
Maybe they’re secretly spoofing themselves and are quietly aware of the absurdity of it all. Maybe-but not likely. These are not people living by their wits. These are people living by their butts. And whatever other body parts the camera wants to adore. At least Lopez is gorgeous. But what is the deal with Affleck? He’s just this molten lump, waiting to be shaped and baked in a kiln. He has no identity, no substance. He’s an outline. Maybe that’s why so many of today’s stars get tattoos, a stupid thing to do for actors who are called upon to play people of various eras and occupations; but they get the tattoos so we can tell them apart.
Celebrity slump
If, feeling masochistic, you watch “Entertainment Tonight” or “Access Hollywood” more than once a week, you get the impression there really are only 10 “celebrities” in America-and three of them are Jennifer Love Hewitt. Face it: We’ve got a crummy class of superstars right now. Rappers, when they aren’t murdering each other, celebrate their own “street smarts” in jewelry by Cartier, designer jeans and monstrous mansions flaunted on MTV. “American Idol” proved that you can now be an acclaimed pop singer in America without having any hint of personal style whatsoever; in fact, it’s a disadvantage. (Timberlake’s solo album, many critics have pointed out, is pure imitation Michael Jackson-the Michael of about five noses ago.)
These new stars are beneath the dignity of Mary Hart (ageless goddess of “ET”), much less the dignity of a Barbara Walters or a Diane Sawyer. There’s sexism even in the fact that few if any-most likely, none-of a news division’s male stars would sit still for such an assignment. Yes, Ted Koppel did interview Jon Stewart for an ABC News “UpClose” last week, but Stewart can at least tell a joke. He at least has a recognizable talent.
If ABC and CNN do merge, as now seems so viciously inevitable, I demand that Jeff Greenfield be sent out to interview Shania Twain. And Lou Dobbs has to spend an hour with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. No, he’d enjoy that. With Nelly. Or Usher. Or anybody with one name (except, of course, God).
The late John Springer once wrote a nostalgic book about superstars of yesteryear titled “They Had Faces Then.” Yes, they did. And by comparison with the superstars of today, they had brains then too. As for Walters and Sawyer, they’ve done their duties and proven they’re obliging team players. They should be allowed back into the real world as soon as possible. They need it; it needs them.