We made Doree venture out this weekend to bask in the presence of Us Weekly's Janice Min. Herewith, her report!
On Saturday night, the Columbia Spectator held its annual Blue Pencil Lecture, the capstone of an evening of dining and drinking by the Spectator's incoming and outgoing boards. Columbia College and J-school alum and US Weekly editor Janice Min was the guest of honor—even though she only wrote one story for the Spec as an undergrad.
Nonetheless, the paper was proud to claim her as their own. And in a room full of self-serious fledgling journalists (overheard: "I have this great idea for a TV show—it'd be like Grey's Anatomy, except it would be about journalism stringers! Like, people who worked on different school papers!"), Ms. Min played to her audience. "I did not have a particularly illustrious academic career," she said. The newspaper editors in the audience shared a knowing chuckle. Then Ms. Min said she had written a speech with more words than a typical issue of US Weekly. She's self-deprecating! Just like Us!
"People talk about the tabloidization of society and what it means for the future of society, and people talk about celebrities and their role—but Paris Hilton didn't start any wars," Ms. Min reminded her young charges. "I have memories as a child of watching the Watergate hearings with my mother. And now we live in an era when CNN went for 90 minutes uninterrupted on Anna Nicole Smith's death!"
Then she gave a juicy blind item that had the students tittering, about a "young cultured diva" who was returning to London, whose husband was so drunk at their wedding that he openly flirted with his mistress... and which turned out to be about that naughty late-18th-century couple, King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick. Gossip was not invented by Bonnie Fuller, or even Walter Winchell, it turns out! (Janice, you scamp!)
"These days, it's all about celebrities behaving very badly in front of camera," Ms. Min said, not entirely approvingly or disapprovingly. "There's no limit to what certain celebrities will do, or what an audience will watch. It's like, you have to have an audience or you cease to exist. We've come a long way from Descartes!" Indeed, we have. But what of Ms. Min's own august publication? "US Weekly gives a more accessible portraits of celebrities," Ms. Min said. "'Just Like US' are the most popular pages in the magazine, and it's just celebrities doing boring stuff. We provide our readers with a glamorous version of their own lives—just with Brad Pitt!"
She would also like to make it clear that US is not just read by trailer trash! "Our average reader is a 30-year-old woman making $62,000 a year," she said. "That's a higher income than Vogue and Esquire! Our readers like the distraction that a human interest magazine provides. It's okay to avert our eyes to the disaster in Iraq and look at the disaster that is Britney Spears."
And did you know that Brittany Murphy once said, "If they want to find Osama Bin Laden, send an US Weekly reporter after him"?
Anyway, US is not, in itself, to blame for America's current obsession with celebrity. "Let the news outlet that is completely without celebrity coverage cast the first stone!" Ms. Min said. "We feed a public with a seemingly endless appetite for the antics of celebrities. The entertainment industry has replaced politics as the diversion of choice. We have a war that's produced almost no images of dead Americans. We can see methadone in Anna Nicole Smith's fridge, but not images of a taxpayer-funded war in Iraq?"
The serious matters concluded, it was then time for questions. "How do you guard against being used by celebrities?" asked one young man, who, earlier in the evening, had won an award for being an all-around good chap around the newsroom. Ms. Min got contemplative. "Well, it's a fine line," she said. "Angelina Jolie plays the press better than anyone. She turned the dialogue from homewrecker to humanitarian, and Jennifer Aniston came out the loser. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt came out on top. When they got together, they were only photographed in developing nations, and it suddenly became, 'Wow, she's an amazing woman.' And she does donate some things...." Ms. Min, it would seem, is firmly on Team Aniston.
Then someone asked whether she feels responsible for what Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears became. "Anna Nicole Smith was not trying to be Judi Dench. She was living her life in a very public way," Ms. Min said, pointing to the sale of the photos of Ms. Smith's dead son taken in the days before he died, the video of her C-section, and her fake wedding to Howard K. Stern. "I feel sadder for Britney. She never had a childhood. She was stage-managed from the time she was 10 or 11 years old. She's not educated. She didn't have the savvy to know what was going on. Had she been smarter and had better handling, she would have had better control."
Ms. Min stayed afterwards, answering the eager questions of the assorted staff. One day, long ago, it was decreed that all college newspaper staff members everywhere would be exactly the same. The girls are invariably described as "the nicest person you'll ever meet," and the guys are dorkily beloved. And then there was a fellow who asked her to compare InStyle and US Weekly, since they are "both tabloids." "InTouch?" Ms. Min asked, gently.
"No, InStyle," the student insisted.