The Scale of Celebrity Death

Tim Russert died. I'm not sure if you've heard. But, yes, the Meet the Press moderator and dedicated D.C. journalist passed away, at a too-young 58, last week and the media has been in a frenzy since. Jack Shafer at Slate (among many others, I'm sure) feels that the coverage is a bit overdone. Yes Russert was by all accounts a good guy and a good worker and just one of those decent people that feel in short supply, especially in Washington, especially in the media. But isn't it still a bit much? All the tributes and montages and teary testimonials. I mean, nearly every life deserves parades and fireworks and tears and montages when it ends. But, because this is on TV and people are being paid, somewhere, doesn't this seem all a bit circusy? Maybe that's cynical, but television has, to some extent, earned our cynicism. If this is indeed a "circus," then where does it rank among other notable, much-covered celebrity deaths? A writer for Psychology Today says it's the biggest death since John Lennon. We disagree. We'll put this all in some context after the jump.

Jossip offers names like Biggie, Tupac, and Anna Nicole Smith as comparison, but we've selected three other figures (Lennon included) who died famously and tragically to compare to Russert's death. We'll measure the impact (socially, on the media, etc) of each passing on a scale from 1-10.

The Scale of Celebrity Death

The Respected Institution: Tim Russert, Heart Failure, June 13, 2008
Russert was a fixture of Washington press and politics. He was both jovial and stern, pleasant and probing. He was the kind of reporter who gave a good face to politics. To that end, every news media figure had some fond remembrance of Russert, some anecdote. Every news show in the land had (or is having) a special Russert retrospective. A "private" memorial service will be broadcast by MSNBC tomorrow.
Impact: 4. I suppose all of this is just something of a twenty-one gun salute from his colleagues. Some people, like Shafer, may criticize the coverage for being indulgent. Of course it's indulgent, these people are his friends and have newscameras in front of them. Whether some sinister network exec is standing in the shadows, rubbing his hands together, with dollar signs in his eyes seems mostly inconsequential. The lamentation and celebration seems genuine, heartfelt.

The Scale of Celebrity Death

The Rising Star: Heath Ledger, Drug Overdose, January 22, 2008
The young actor, who had received critical raves for his portrayal of a repressed gay cowboy in 2005's Brokeback Mountain, was getting large buzz for a number of upcoming films, including this summer's The Dark Knight, in which he stars as The Joker, Batman's arch nemesis. Ledger's death, from a bad mixture of sleeping pills and other medication, was originally thought to be a suicide, but tests quickly disproved that. It seems as though it was just a dumb bit of bad luck. As the paparazzi was largely responsible for Princess Diana's death (see below), the paparazzi made themselves well known here too, this time as rabid spectators and (ahem) gawkers. When the news broke, legions of photographers rushed to the SoHo apartment where the 28-year-old's body was found, hoping to see the body brought out. And they did.
Impact: 5. The instant explosion of news about Ledger's death showed the blogosphere at its full, bellowing power. It mushroom clouded very quickly, with people speculating, trading gossip (was Mary-Kate Olsen involved?), and eventually criticizing the media's lasciviousness toward the whole matter. But news moved on fairly quickly, and it was all over within a week or so.

The Scale of Celebrity Death

The Poet: John Lennon Shot and Killed, December 8, 1980
The strange, swirling brain of definitive rock band the Beatles, Lennon was as iconic a figure of the Western world's social, sexual, and political awakening as any other in the 20th century. Naturally, news of his death reverberated enormously with his fans and followers. A crowd of a 100,000 or so gathered in memorial in Central Park, not far from the scene of the shooting. News outlets covered the story non-stop, dogging the surviving Beatles for reactions. Central Park's Strawberry Fields was dedicated in his honor.
Impact: 8. As shocking a death as possible, given the nature of the incident and Lennon's iconic status. Though it had been ten years since the Beatles broke up, Lennon and wife Yoko Ono remained fixtures of the progressive music scene. Grief over his death was genuine and profound, and substantial and enduring media coverage reflected that. In the past two years two films about the assassination have been released.

The Scale of Celebrity Death

The Heroine: Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales Killed in Car Accident While Trying to Avoid Paparazzi, August 31st, 1997
The death of Diana, ex-wife of the United Kingdom's Prince Charles, rocked the entire world. A grand tragedy in all possible ways — a lovely young mother of two little boys, a beloved activist for peace to boot, killed in the stupidest and most avoidable of accidents — 2.5 billion people watched her funeral. My mother, who had woken up very early in the morning years before to watch Diana's wedding to Charles, woke us up in the middle of the night to tell us what had happened. The world felt immediate then, everything felt close by — even though we were in a small summer house in Rhode Island and the tragedy was farway on a busy Paris street. I imagine that's how many others felt, as well.
Impact: 10. As big and devastating as these deaths get, one hopes. Loved for her kind nature and down-to-earth sensibilities, for many people Diana represented something universally good and hopeful in the world. When that was taken away, quite suddenly and under such frustrating circumstances, the sense of loss lingered for some time. That sadness, compounded with the scandal of the Queen's relative silence on the matter, made the frenzy over the story reach unimaginable heights. It seemed to go on for months and months (aided, I'm sure, by Elton John's "Candle In the Wind" redo). And who can forget that dreadful, defining footage (shown over and over and over again) of her two boys, William and Harry, walking in the funeral procession?

The real fact of the matter, though, is that many people have died since Friday, since this morning, since I started writing this post. Like I said earlier, nearly every one of those deaths deserves recognition and memorials and all manner of other things. As our world doesn't quite work that way, we're left here with the famous deaths and, strangely, I've been tasked to quantify the reactions. I'm certainly not assessing the import of the actual life, of the actual grief, but rather what the media and its followers did when they stumbled, carelessly or not, upon it.