The charges against Justin Bieber for drunken driving and resisting arrest have been the story of the day on cable news and across Twitter, where the pop singer's smiling mugshot has been endlessly reproduced. It's definitely interesting. But is it a story that ought to be covered?
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has spent the morning interrogating himself and his viewership on Twitter, inconclusively:
Bieber was until recently, when he stepped back from releasing albums, one of the top music stars on the planet. Not everything he does is news -- and even troubles not pertaining to the justice system, like his exploits on his disastrous recent world tour, may indeed have been over-covered. But his arrest is a story that's not merely about itself: It's a story about the consequences of super-fame upon the young and impressionable, and the degree to which celebrities get special treatment that may or may not warp their view of the world.
Where have we heard this before? Oh, right: About every female celebrity who goes through a public crisis. While there's hand-wringing about whether to cover the case of Bieber at all, Britney Spears (who underwent various personal troubles in 2007 and 2008) and Lindsay Lohan (whose legal and personal issues have been vaguely ongoing for nearly a decade) have provided journalists opportunity to opine about the state of the American psyche. Spears's case, in particular, provided interesting and challenging pieces about paparazzi culture and about the soul-destroying force of the modern celebrity apparatus. Those pieces are worthwhile and it's good they exist. But they have at their center a weakened and vulnerable woman, something that illustrates in a semiotically whole fashion the idea of "the destruction of innocence." Bieber, a man, provides nowhere near the ideological satisfaction -- and so it's his case that comes in for scrutiny as not worthwhile.
There are two times it's okay to cover celebrity drug issues: When they are those of a woman, and when they're somehow deemed "funny," as in the case of Charlie Sheen's unhinged "Vatican warlord" rants or the ongoing saga of Rob Ford. (Ford, a Canadian municipal politician, is effectively a celebrity in the U.S.; the decisions he makes have absolutely no bearing on American lives. And he's covered not like a foreign politician but like a TMZ superstar.) A universal standard that no such stories ever get covered would at least be equitable. But that cuts off a rich vein of inquiry.
Consider that Justin Bieber has millions of deeply devoted fans -- not that journalism ought to exist to provide them constant updates, but his effect on their own beliefs and actions can't be discounted now or in the future. Bieber's actions might have been treated differently were he of a different race -- what can we learn from the singer's valorization by his fans in light of Richard Sherman being treated as a "thug" for screaming on television? Ought Bieber, a Canada native, be deported -- and what does it mean vis-a-vis special treatment of celebrities if he is not? What soul-sickness in the global star system leads to the ongoing downward spiral Bieber seems to have been experiencing? Is it morally acceptable to make children into celebrities?
All of these are questions raised by the Bieber arrest. And none of them could possibly be answered if the media decided not to cover them. (The presumption that news outlets not covering Bieber's arrest magically shift their attention to strife in Ukraine, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic is rich, given that most would instead give air to bizarre allegations about Wendy Davis and the gaseous emissions from Davos.)
And the media seems to be focusing its attention on Bieber: CNN, Stelter's employer, has already announced a TV special on Bieber. Good! This could be as surface-level and glib as an E! puff piece. But it could illuminate some greater truth, the thing for which the millions of Americans who scour tabloids and gossip sites weekly are looking. To write all of those readers off as simple-minded and unconcerned with real news is to miss the point about what "real news" is.