The perils of celebrity journalism

The lines between reporter, celebrity and commentator in the television age are disturbingly blurry. The perils of this trend came into sharp focus this week as Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera took center stage in the war story. Sent by their respective networks to cover the war in Iraq, each, in different ways, compromised precious resources. For Arnett, it was his credibility as a professional journalist. For Rivera, it was soldiers’ lives. These cases reveal what can happen when news organizations use a celebrity journalist’s name recognition and access in the hopes of gaining an edge in a news story. And when the news concerns profound and complex subjects such as war and peace, the issue of news organizations hiring celebrity journalists raises serious questions.

As reporters cover the events in Iraq, celebrity journalists often substitute facts and analysis for their opinions and theories. Hired to attract viewers, their hyperbole detracts from the mission of the journalist. Consider Oliver North, Fox News Channel’s embedded correspondent/commentator/flag waver. Remarking about the soldiers, North said, “I have enormous affection for these guys. I’m sure it shows and it’s not professional and not objective and all that crap. I love being with Marines.” North’s comments, familiar on the Fox network, demonstrate why it is dangerous for a news organization to use someone with a dubious past who openly relies on personal views to stake out news territory. They also detract from the compelling body of work produced by serious war correspondents, including Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post and Dexter Filkins of The New York Times.

Journalists must walk a fine line between reporter and commentator, participant and observer, and actor and spectator. Where to draw the line is a question that perplexes many in the profession. All agree, however, that telling the truth and providing accurate reports that allow people to make informed decisions is how journalists fulfill their crucial function in democratic societies. War is serious business. It demands serious reportage. Celebrity journalists, striving to amaze and entertain and becoming a part of the story themselves, mock the real human sacrifice and heartbreak that is the story of war.