Media coverage surrounding the death of the pop star and singing sensation Whitney Houston could be described, at best, as schizophrenic. One moment a nation weeps for a lost and beloved singing legend; the next they decry her drug abuse, poor choice of marital partner and public misbehavior. If there were a trend, it seems to be: first comes emotion, then moralizing and judgment; as if the narrative of her life and death could fit neatly into a headline, as if anyone who is adding to the fray—myself included, knows diddly-squat about the real Whitney Houston.
Nevertheless, the insatiable hunger for a full account of the events leading to and following her apparent submersion in a bathtub has been fed and exploited by the media, day by day, detail by detail, as a country obsessed with the inner lives of celebrities – the sordid “reality” of their daily living – has feasted upon a salacious spread of rumor and fact as a way, perhaps, of coping with their grief. In the week since Houston was found dead in her Beverly Hilton hotel room, the attention has been so consistent and relentless, even my mother, a self-described CNN junkie, wondered, “Is this getting more attention than Michael Jackson’s death?”
Google “Whitney Houston funeral” and no fewer than ten thousand articles turn up, from amateur blogs to The New York Times, reporting, repeating and commenting on how this all happened, what it all means and the finer points of her legacy. But in the vacuum left by her snuffed out star, the media has lost its grip on itself. In our desperation to get out the “news” and, before anyone else does – a melee of civilian and professional journalists have poured forth unsolicited material that proves there are no boundaries whatsoever when it comes to celebrity reporting. And while this boundlessness has included much legitimate reporting, it has also highlighted a complete absence of ethics where the welfare of its subjects are concerned.
The most egregious example of bottom feeding on the reporting boon came the day after Houston’s funeral courtesy of Newsweek’s online sister site, The Daily Beast: “Was Whitney’s Daughter Found Getting High?” went the subject line of their Feb. 19 email blast. The news “exclusive” described in suspenseful narrative style how Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina apparently disappeared after her mother’s funeral and according to “two sources close to the family” (read: anonymous and therefore, unverifiable) that equals a drug problem the public should know about.
Heaven forbid Newsweek and Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown’s children find themselves subjected to such unfair and inappropriate scrutiny the day after her funeral.
The media’s job is not to be kind or to cower in the face of uncomfortable reporting, but to target the grieving child of a dead celebrity on the day of her mother’s funeral seems a gross abuse of power and a shocking disregard for humane journalism. Has Whitney Houston’s teenaged daughter done anything to warrant media coverage of her private grief? Is this the sort of game we journalists are playing in the wild west of 21st century journalism? What is The Daily Beast’s code of ethics when it comes to reportage? What is their obligation to their readers? To educate and inform? To check and balance democracy? Or to pander to their readerships’ most base and voyeuristic impulses?
The choice to report on Houston’s daughter’s alleged private troubles ventures so far beyond the boundaries of ethical reporting it is a pox on all media houses.
Fortunately, the disreputable work of some media outlets can be counterbalanced by the lawful work of others. One of the best examples of this, also related to Houston, came when Oprah decided to rerun a 2009 interview with the star, which was one of the most intimate, candid and gut-wrenching televisions interviews I’ve ever seen. It was an open, honest piece of work, a report on Whitney Houston’s private life direct from the source. After all, who is a better authority on Houston’s interior life than Houston herself? I remember watching the interview last week and thinking what a gift Oprah gave not only to Houston’s millions of fans, but especially her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who perhaps one day, many years from now, will watch it as an adult and understand a little bit better who her mother was and how she saw the world.