All podcasts are not created equal. Putting a celebrity in front of a microphone does not mean that person is taking part in journalism. Especially when the host is a celebrity, as well.
If you’re not a listener, I’m referring to the growing genre of podcasts from Hollywood actors, musicians and other boldface names, who talk with other celebrities about their lives, their opinions and issues of the day. These programs may share a basic format with journalistic endeavors, but are bound by none of the same standards and practices.
Perhaps your mind went to Kanye West (who now goes by Ye) and his recent bigotry-filled appearance on the Drink Champs podcast. That’s only one example in an industry where celebrities — or in some cases, artists-turned-media personalities — have expanded their interests to hosting.
Maybe it’s an effort to take back some measure of control. Celebrity reporting has always had its share of dubious practitioners — from reporters who fawn over their subjects and overlook uncomfortable truths in order to maintain access, to those who traffic in gossip and nastiness for the sake of nastiness.
Whatever the reason celebrities are restyling themselves as pseudo-journalists, some skepticism is warranted because so often they flounder when confronted with anything that might jeopardize their personal relationships. There’s a lack of willingness — and know-how — on the part of these hosts to engage in anything beyond a softball conversation.
In private, that’s what friends do. But for public consumption? What are the conflicts of interest, especially when both parties are either friends or simply move in the same professional circles?
What kinds of overcorrections are taking place to ensure a guest never has to contend with anything that might even hint at an inconvenient truth? What are the conversations that aren’t happening because there’s a tacit understanding among celebrities about what is or isn’t on the table for discussion?
This week on Meghan Markle’s podcast “Archetypes,” she interviews Paris Hilton about “bimbo” and “dumb blonde” stereotypes. Markle is a smart and thoughtful host who is interested in parsing why society is so quick to embrace categories that reduce women to simplistic and negative traits.
Is Hilton the only person with insights on this topic? Is she the most thoughtful? Probably not. But she is famous. And it’s notable that the podcast consistently features celebrities as the primary guests.
Something happens when celebrities interview other celebrities. Everything has the whiff of PR and superlatives and mutual admiration and ensuring that everyone feels boosted. So much so that when Markle praises Hilton’s business acumen by saying, among other things, “she launched her very own NFT collection,” it’s worth pointing out what’s conspicuously missing.
The consumer watchdog group Truth in Advertising has pinpointed 19 celebrities, including Hilton, it says may be involved in promoting NFTs without disclosing their connection to these projects. In August, the group sent letters to each celebrity noting that “we have found that celebrity NFT promotions is an area rife with deception, including, but not limited to, a failure to clearly and conspicuously disclose the promoter’s material connection to the endorsed NFT company” and urged Hilton to “immediately disclose those material connections wherever the promotions are made.”
Markle has been the subject of all kinds of irrational media coverage and her podcast quietly aims to subvert that. She notes that she’s not interested in passing judgment, so perhaps asking questions that probe Hilton more deeply — questions that may not conform to an empowerment narrative — would interrupt the tone of the podcast. It’s an approach that’s certainly beneficial for her celebrity guests, but considerably less informative for her listeners. That’s a judgment call in itself and it pretends that the only way to respect a person’s humanity is to carefully avoid worthwhile questions.
Ultimately, the episode is less an excavation of the bimbo archetype and more about why Hilton adopted a dumb blonde persona as a defensive mechanism. That’s fine, but it’s a narrow focus specific to one person’s experience — a celebrity’s experience. The fascination with how celebrities experience the world, and the idea that we can and should extrapolate something universal from that, has proven to be a consistently profitable phenomenon across pop culture.
There’s also Hilton’s alleged history of racist comments, also not discussed here. Considering Markle has been subjected to rampant racism on social media, and in a more veiled form from certain corners of the British press, it’s baffling that she would uncritically invite Hilton on her show and, by extension, legitimize her.
But maybe it’s not baffling. Because from the outside, it can often appear that the rich and famous prioritize maintaining at least the facade of friendly relationships over speaking truth to power. You look out for me, I’ll look out for you.
The actor Jon Bernthal hosts a podcast of his own and not long ago he featured a sympathetic conversation with fellow actor Shia LaBeouf. It’s an episode that could be interpreted as the latter’s attempt at image rehabilitation ahead of a lawsuit set to go to court in the spring, in which he is alleged to have assaulted and inflicted emotional distress on ex-girlfriend FKA twigs.
One can be professional and respectful without ignoring the elephant in the room. Or letting someone engage in deflection. Or allowing questionable assertions to go unchallenged. Smart journalists, ethical journalists know this is a basic part of the job. It takes practice to learn how to do it well. It’s not being mean or judgmental — it’s the art of interviewing. We shouldn’t expect celebrities — even the most intelligent among them, even those we admire — to have those skills or even the desire to learn them. But that also means we need to listen with a critical ear.
Celebrities are allowed to host as many podcasts as they’d like. But that’s not journalism. That’s public relations. Sometimes it’s very artfully crafted PR that feels like it’s filled with substance, but it’s PR all the same. And it should be treated with at least some amount of skepticism about the motivations and image management behind it.
We often talk about the importance of media literacy when it comes to differentiating between hard news reporting and opinion columns and gossip items that do not have one named source on the record. But media literacy is also just as vital when absorbing information about celebrities. We’re all better off the more informed we are about the media we consume.
The good news: Illinois recently became the first state in the country to require media literacy to be taught in high school.
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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