As is its custom during this festive season, the cable television channel A&E recently devoted an evening to its Biography of the Year. The winner was New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose splendid leadership on and after Sept. 11 won the admiration of the world. Finishing behind Giuliani, but well ahead of the rest of us, were the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Pakistan’s President Perev Musharraf, the U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and the terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Clearly they met the criteria the network has established to qualify for its contest: They are famous. (Why they are famous is beside the point in such competitions.) You may have had a good year yourself, saving souls, giving to the poor, raising children with honorable values, but if you think that’s going to get you on Biography of the Year, well, you’d better take a long, hard look at the world around you.
The A&E event generally is a lightweight version of Time magazine’s annual Person of the Year competition, but a slightly weightier version of the network’s nightly biography series, which celebrates the lives and often the possessions of the rich, the famous and the beautiful. The series has spawned a magazine, Biography, which reminds readers that every life has a story. How true. But why is it that the only stories that get told are those of the rich, the famous and the beautiful?
The cult of fame, apparently, is alive and well in the United States, even after Sept. 11the date that was supposed to have changed everything, that made us more serious and thoughtful, less interested in the lives of vacuous celebrities. Granted, A&E’s list of top biographies reflects the sober times in which we live. And the network did include, as a group, the uniformed heroes of Sept. 11 and the doomed passengers who brought down the American Airlines flight in Pennsylvania before it could wreak death and destruction in Washington, D.C.
Still, there seems little doubt that whatever else has changed, the American media remain transfixedor at least believe that the public remains transfixedby celebrity. The only lives worth chronicling are those that already have been chronicled; the only faces worth seeing are the recognizable. Reality shows peddle the promise of fame, blessed fame, to the sinfully obscure. In New York, where the nation’s tastemakers work and reside, newspapers print the names of the famous in bold face in their gossip columns. The keepers of the bold type do not distinguish between movie stars and Mafia dons, U.S. Senators and murderous dictators. If you’re famous, you’re entitled to bold type. Your story is worth telling. Over the summer, a young woman in the publicity trade injured more than a dozen people when they had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of the publicist’s sport utility vehicle. The result? The publicist has become a celebrity, and is treated accordingly, even after her indictment.
The nation’s news and entertainment executives believe that the surest way to readers, and therefore to profits, is to tell the stories of the famous, over and over again if necessary. Talk-show hosts chat with the famous about their fame, a far cry from the nights when Johnny Carson presided over a debate between writers Ben Wattenberg and Paul Erlich about the population explosion. (Imagine David Letterman or Larry King or Rosie O’Donnell doing likewise.) Journalism students admit, without embarrassment, that their goal is not to uncover political malfeasance or official corruption, but to write profiles of movie stars.
In the midst of the culture’s unchanged worship of fame, there has been, since Sept. 11, a daily antidote, a challenge to the keepers of the national conversation. Beginning shortly after the attacks, The New York Times has been chronicling the lives of those we have lost. Every day, a dozen or so ordinary lives are summarized in a couple of hundred words. And every storyevery storyis more authentic, more dramatic, more poignant, than most of the drivel churned out by the celebrity-making factories of New York.
Any day’s collection of stories, tragic though they are, can serve as an affirmation of life, of decency, of humanity. The portraits I have in front of me, from this morning’s paper, prove the point: the story of two brothers, one a firefighter and the other a cop, who did everything together, and who died together at the World Trade Center; a carpenter who talked constantly about his kids; a single mom who got up every morning at 4 a.m. to prepare her kids and herself for the day ahead; an executive who discovered soccer by watching his kids play.
Yes, every life has a story. But far too many media and entertainment executives long ago concluded that only one kind of story is worth telling and celebrating, the story that culminates in fame and riches. By memorializing the 3,000 ordinary lives lost at the World Trade Center, The New York Times reminds us that one needn’t be famous to have a wonderful life, a life worthy of examination by journalists, novelists, poets and artists.
If you don’t get the Times, you can access the newspaper’s entire and ongoing collection of real-life stories at their Web site: www.nytimes.com.