I cannot say that the Paris Hilton phenomenon marks the beginning of the end as it relates to the decline of American media and values. It is the continuation of the end. In case there was any doubt in my mind before, the entire Paris Hilton fiasco has confirmed to me and all of America that you only matter if you are rich, famous, or find some other way to get on TV. This is most tragic because of the effect that it has on America's future leaders–or should I say followers.
As I watched the second Paris Hilton's release from jail, I was bothered by the mob crowd reaching out to touch and videotape her as if she was Mandela being released from 27 years of confinement or an American journalist being freed by Iraqi captors. What's sad is that in the latter case, that reporter would not get nearly as much attention. The thousands who came out to support her I'm sure believed they were being part of an American historical moment. Through all the paparazzi and million-dollar interview offers, we seem to forget that Paris broke the law not in defense of any civil or human rights issue, but because she endangered lives by driving under the influence. The problem in America, however, is that we are not all DUI but WUI–Watching Under the Influence.
We have become a nation in desperate search to be part of something outside of our self-proclaimed miserable lives. We have become subjects in search of royalty. We believe that we are too poor, too fat, too overworked, and too bored with our lives that we have to escape into the lives of celebrities. We have to know the latest socks Beyoncé is wearing, the newest "baby cub" of Tiger Woods, or the latest clinic Britney Spears is checking into. We are so desperate to escape our own lives because when we watch Paris be released from jail because she's "sick" or Snoop serve no jail time for the umpteenth drug possession charge, we can't help think to ourselves that if we can become rich and famous, we won't have to answer to anybody.
The entertainment world is not isolated in this truism. I cannot forget watching the wife of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey on Oprah. She stated that during the press conference when he announced his homosexuality, McGreevey told her to keep smiling to the media because this was her "Jackie O" moment. She was incensed because she could not believe she was told to be strong for America not because her husband–the President–was assassinated, but because her governor husband cheated on her with another man and then claimed he had to come forward because he was being exploited. He rode this "exploitation" all the way to a book deal on his way to the priesthood because we have also learned in America that we can engage in any illicit behavior and be forgiven as long as we"find God" somewhere along the way.
If we want to really change the direction of this nation and media culture, we have to begin rewarding people who got it right the first time. I am disheartened by the fact that on the very same day that every news outlet is speaking about Paris Hilton's interview with Larry King, a 23-year-old became the youngest person to fly around the world and has received little-to-no coverage. He happened to be the first African-American to do so as well. Though I watch and read the news daily, I am ashamed to say I never knew about this young man, Mr. Barrington Irving, until about two days ago even though he took flight in March on a shoestring budget. Did you know? The Fox News website does not have it on its site and CNN covered it for about an hour and it's off their site as well. Irving also had the misfortune of scheduling his landing the same day as the BET Awards-no coverage on the main page. You have to ask yourself one simple question: who would you want your child to be watching on Larry King? Will Mr. Irving get a reality show and book deal? He actually flew around the world to inspire people and is a college graduate (remember when we used to respect that institution too?).
Until we can raise children to celebrate positivity over partially-pornographic videos, academics over athletics, and humility over hubris, we will have generation after generation that will solely focus on the pursuit of money and fame, literally at any expense. Ten years or so ago, Susan Smith was shunned by America for killing her babies and damaging race relations by blaming a black man. In this day and age, Andrea Yates gets a movie made about her murder of her own children. If we can change for the worse in my lifetime, we can change for the better as well. If we continue, especially in our nation's poorer communities, to watch the lives of the rich and famous from our poor and anonymous households, we will continue the endless cycle of dropouts and criminals all looking for get-famous quick schemes through entertainment and shady politics.
As I continue to raise my 13-month old daughter, I am going to try my hardest to have her grow to become giddy and excited at the accomplishments of Mr. Barrington rather than Lindsay Lohan. I will try to have her make role models out of people who have made positive contributions to this world. I pray am successful. I do know that whether I succeed or not, I have to start by turning off mainstream TV and radio so that I can first teach her that the media now including the "news" stations are nothing but tabloid television with serious news blended in. If you can pledge to do the same thing, the mainstream media will have no choice but to honor our wishes. Are you with me? Then start by turning off your television and turning on your child's mind. Before we tune into Paris tonight, let's make sure we've tuned into our kids and program them properly.