The mood in our office following the death of Paul Walker was somber and respectful for about thirty seconds.
Half-remembered details of his life and career were shared, heads were slightly bowed, and moments of reflective silence were observed as everyone quietly wondered what was an acceptable amount of time to leave the body to rest before talking about work. Someone somewhat famous had just died under tragic circumstances. This was the finest knife-edge between morality and professionalism in the world of entertainment journalism.
In the days that followed Paul Walker’s death every major media outlet rewrote stories, made speculations, quoted sources ‘close to the deceased’, composed galleries of his life, and impatiently waited on post-mortem and toxicology reports. While more reputable newspapers laid the story to rest after a few days, the celebrity gossip magazines continued trying to extract everything they could from subject. Walker’s life, death and career were comprehensively analyzed, scrutinized and judged as editors and reporters wondered quite how much attention his death required.
The gossip publication at which I’m employed has run a total of 35 pieces on the topic to date. But from the moment word of his passing reached our office, the message was clear: don’t overdo it. Because Walker was famous, but he wasn’t that famous. The reality however was that the Fast and the Furious star was made ‘that’ famous in death. In the 24 hours following his fatal car crash on November 30th his Twitter following almost doubled from 900,407 followers to 1,727,406, with another 500,000 or so in the two weeks that followed. As a result of the unrelenting reporting Walker was graced with a fame in death that practically alluded him in life.
In the world of celebrity gossip, a premature death is very good for business.
With the act of dying being far from straightforward, the gradual drip of information released in the days and weeks following the celebrity’s departure are paced like a tense soap opera. Each day fresh details are given, new characters emerge, subplots are formed, and the sensationalized drama is sustained for as long as it can be. The fact is that the celebrity’s job to entertain extends far beyond their final breath.
“Sometimes the media creates a demand for celebrity death coverage that plays into the insatiable appetites of these fans, and that appetite can be overzealous,” noted Jawn Murray, a prominent member of the pop culture media, in an article from HNL on the act of grieving for the famous. “Social media has made it so that you can have an immediate impact. Everybody becomes a mourner. You may not be able to go to this person’s funeral, but you can take a moment to express something about the person’s life.”
This is the age of the vast, borderless digital conversation, and few things connect the diverse online community like the death of a figure we all recognize. #RIP[insertdeceasedcelebrity] is a socially acceptable way of casually mourning those you’ve never met, and in the process it brings the disenfranchised web community closer together. And if you happened to be purveyor of the details surrounding the #RIP[insertdeceasedcelebrity] then your intentions are to continue manufacturing and distributing that content until no one wants it any more.
“Generally, I am one of the first people that would know [about a celebrity death] because my work begins immediately and doesn’t end for several weeks,” said James Vituscka, entertainment reporter and former news producer for Us Weekly and Entertainment Tonight. “There is so much to uncover, if it is someone relevant. Many times, when a celebrity has passed away at night, I have had to come into work and work straight through until the next day when the show comes out, or the magazine gets published. It’s a circus.”
Vituscka’s line of work puts him firmly on the front line of Hollywood’s gossip industry. In the hours following the death of a notable figure he is expected to contact the star’s publicist, the police department and then the coroner to get the death report. Typically the team of reporters will be gathered to discuss the editorial protocol before the body is cold. And very little, it seems, is considered poor taste.
“When Paul Walker died, I was asked to call the family and get a statement,” said Vituscka. “That made me feel very uncomfortable, but it is something that is part of my job as a reporter.”
But the gossip magazines and their audience do not grieve everyone equally. If you’re the young, handsome Glee-star Cory Monteith then they want to know every detail as it emerges. If you’re the middle-aged, average-looking Philip Seymour Hoffman then they don’t really care much beyond the essential details. Although it is important to mention that flirting with gossip culture comes as a mandatory accessory to a starring role in Glee. The same certainly cannot be said for The Master.
Hoffman, the man the New York Times called “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation”, who died at 46 of a heroin overdose on February 2nd, received a significantly smaller amount of gossip column inches in comparison to Monteith, who also died of a heroin overdose. In our office Hoffman’s passing was noted, debated, reported, and then we moved on. Monteith’s death has yielded 84 articles on our website to date.
Hoffman is not Monteith. They’re apples and oranges. But apples and oranges are both fruits. Each of these celebrated actors died in the last 12 months of the same cause, and yet the responses to their deaths have been wildly different in the celebrity media. Hoffman’s was standoffish, resembling something closer to the controlled grieving of a somewhat distant-uncle. Monteith’s was the manic, guttural shriek of a teen that’d lost her best friend. And these responses were calculated editorial decisions.
Despite the fact that I find judging someone’s merit and value immediately following their death to be callous and abhorrent, I understand. It’s their job to report. And it’s a very simple case of supply and demand. The public has a morbid fascination with celebrity deaths. The articles written in the days following the deaths have an extremely high ‘click’-yield, and the content can be stretched out for weeks before the interest tapers off.
“Death, divorce, drugs, drama and DUI: If it not about the “5 D’s”, the public will not care,” notes Vituscka. “Many times we are questioning our ethics. Sometimes I feel that the paparazzi are overstepping their bounds, or that we are hurting a celebrity and not helping them, but that is what they signed up for when they took this role in society. Every celebrity is overexposed nowadays. No one is exempt.”
It makes you wonder if perhaps we as a society need genuine death with fickle, non-committal grief in order to verify our own lives at an arm’s length. In the eyes of the public an actor is a non-fictional representation of a series of fictional characters, and with this convoluted sense of definition comes a complex emotional response to that person’s death. As a society we stand together for a while in state a shallow emotion. We ponder a life, we send out a tweet, we flick through the tribute gallery, and then we go about our day, unfazed, yet subconsciously thankful that we’re still alive.