The media has an insatiable appetite to gobble up even the most superficial minutiae and spit it out as hard news.
During the first few months of 2005, spread across every daily newspaper, tabloid, and pop culture magazine, discussed endlessly on afternoon talk radio, aired on myriad news and feature TV shows, was the Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston break-up. So well known had the media made the TV and film stars that just referring to them as Brad and Jen was enough. Media coverage went into overdrive when Brad and Angelina Jolie starred in Mr and Mrs Smith, giving the media enough fodder to scream that not only were these two stars dating but that Angelina may have been the one to cause the Brad-Jen break-up. Of course, there was no evidence, but inquiring minds wanted to know.
For a couple of years, the media gorged on the dating habits and engagement of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, whom they dubbed Bennifer. This being a Hollywood romance, there was the break-up, followed by the sequel. Bennifer II starred the engagement, pregnancy and marriage of Ben and Jennifer Garner, who had become America’s “cute couple of the moment”.
Still searching for critical news, the media dished out the secrets of Jude Law cheating on Sienna Miller, Britney Spears’ pregnancy and the latest Jessica Simpson brain cramp. For more “enlightened” audiences, the media was all over Tom Cruise jumping onto Oprah’s couch to proclaim his love for Katie Holmes, and his Today show dissing of post-partum depression and psychiatry.
In crime stories, the media had feasted upon pretty young white girls who were abducted, the Laci Peterson and Bonnie Lee Blakely murders, and Michael Jackson’s trial on child molestation charges. Media pundits proclaimed Jackson was guilty, especially since late night comics were talking about the King of Pop more than they were spewing politics and dirty jokes. But then the justice system betrayed the media and acquitted Jackson of all ten charges. Stung by the verdict, the 3,000 on-site reporters, assistants and camera crews - camped out in Santa Maria, California, during a mild winter by the ocean - haughtily packed up and left.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush-Cheney supporters drew media coverage when they showed up at John Kerry rallies and waved flip-flops to suggest, often correctly, that the Democratic nominee flip-flopped on his answers to critical questions. But, it was flip-flops in the White House that got the media salivating onto their keyboards.
About a week after the nation’s 229th Independence Day celebration, the media again got the story it needed, unwittingly provided by the national champion Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team. Beneath a headline that quoted the lawyer-brother of one of the players - “You wore flip-flops to the White House?!” - was a well-crafted front-page story in the Chicago Tribune about the team’s meeting with President Bush. In a routine group picture provided by the White House, four of the nine women in the first row were shown wearing flip-flops with their dresses or blouses and skirts; the others wore open-toe sandals. About half of the other members in the other three rows also wore flip-flops. “Don’t even ask me about the flip-flops. It mortified me!” the mother of one player told the Associated Press.
President Bush, partially in response to the casualness of the Clinton presidency, had established an edict that there would be a more professional dress standard in the White House. The president, who often wears cowboy boots, was dressed in a blue suit, blue tie, and dress shoes to meet the lacrosse players, but didn’t seem to think the casual footwear of his guests was a problem. After all, his own daughter had worn black flip-flops to court a couple of years earlier to plead “no contest” to a charge of underage possession of alcohol. Confronting pedicured toes, few in the White House or the media noticed that the University of Michigan softball team wore khaki shorts, polo tops, and sneakers in its meeting with the president.
Reporters, columnists, fashion mavens, and just about anyone with access to a writing implement or who could dial their favourite talk show all spoke. Hundreds of local newspapers localised the story by asking residents their opinion, and business executives their policies. In-depth investigations bared the facts that flip-flops are comfortable, ubiquitous and are manufactured in styles from plain US$3 rubber beach wear to US$500 Gucci leather-strap and sequined fashion statements. The shoes the northwestern women wore into the East Wing and flip-flopped onto the South Lawn were neither.
Next for the media might be investigative features about why hospital gowns have slits down the back and the medical risks of Condoleezza Rice wearing high heels. Perhaps they could report about what shoes to wear while pumping US$2.50 a gallon gas, or what suitcases are appropriate when the president packs for frequent vacations in Crawford, Texas. Maybe the media could discuss if Karl Rove should wear a toupee to impress the grand jury if subpoenaed for his role in possibly leaking a CIA agent's name in retaliation folowing her husband’s attack upon the president’s credibility.
Whatever the next story arc is, it will be designed to play into the public’s lust for all the news that’s fit to scandalise.