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Tuesday, October 3, 2006

My timing wasn't at its best when I picked last weekend to buy two out-of-town Sunday papers and pass up the local. But who would have expected a page one story about a "Sweet 15" party to whip up such a storm over at the News Sentinel?

I had glanced at the paper's front page at the store, noticed a lot of pink... and something about a party... and I kept looking for The New York Times. I thought it was a good idea at the time.

That sentence may be echoed by people responsible for the extravagant birthday celebration, the newspaper's extravagant coverage of it, or some extravagantly harsh letters and online comments.

With the Sunday Times, Nashville Tennessean and 90 student papers on my reading list, I hadn't looked at Sunday's News Sentinel until today. I absolutely had to: I've never heard journalism students talking so excitedly about a story that wasn't assigned for class. (OK, I haven't heard them talking so excitedly about a story that was assigned for class, either.)

One said her friends think the family paid to get the paper to run the two and a half pages of coverage of a 15-year-old's birthday party, treating it as the second coming of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," but with a hip-hop beat. (People can't buy page-one coverage, I told her, without going into any details.)

For my online-journalism class, I'll show the video coverage on the KnoxNews website; then we can discuss whether the video alone would have generated the same kinds of comments the printed story and photo display produced. Would it be enough to see moving pictures of the glitter-covered topless football players carrying the birthday girl on their shoulders, like Cleopatra on her throne? ("Decadence" is one of the milder words popping up in readers' comments.)

So far I've counted about 500 comments -- either on the KnoxNews site or on local blogs, including the blog of News Sentinel's editor, Jack McElroy.

McElroy is taking plenty of hits and has responded twice. He says he wasn't completely surprised. This was no expose; the family invited the paper to cover the party (they originally wanted MTV to do it), and McElroy says his staff had to choose between ignoring it, giving it minimal coverage, calling in sociologists to analyze it...

"Or we could accept the invitation and simply describe the party, in detail, letting readers reach their own conclusions and furnish their own commentary. We chose the last option. In doing so, we knew there were two dangers that were, in a sense, ironic opposites. First, we realized that many readers would view the newspaper as glorifying the party, holding it as a model to be emulated. Second, we knew that there would be extreme negative reaction and we were exposing the family to public scorn."

Well, it looks like the editor was right about that much.

Some of the readers had another reaction -- not that the paper was glorifying the party, but that it was consciously stirring up a controversy... to glorify, or at least sell, the newspaper. "Comments are appearing on our Web site at the rate of about one every five minutes. Letters are pouring in. The outrage is almost universal -- at the girl, her mother and, of course, at the News Sentinel," McElroy wrote, in another of his comments.

"How dare we cover, in a non-judgmental way, an event that raises a plethora of questions about values in 21st century America and East Tennessee! What of waste of time, for us and apparently for the thousands and thousands of people who invested their mornings devouring the story in print and online and discussing it across town, merrily condemning all involved."

For students interested in comparative reading, I recommend an article called "Radical Chic" by Tom Wolfe, which was originally a cover story in New York magazine. One difference is that, in Wolfe's case, the party was thrown by someone who was already a celebrity (Leonard Bernstein), and had a political theme -- raising money for the Black Panthers. The folks involved had a little more experience in the spotlight, and Wolfe's tone was far from the "simply describe the party" approach of the News Sentinel.

Beyond that, I'll wait to hear what more of the students think.

12:38:14 PM    comment []

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