Opinion

Universe Ends!

CelebritiesWildfiresEntertainmentNewspaper and MagazineTelevisionFox Broadcasting CompanySean Penn

There's a hoary old joke about newspaper political correctness in the form of a semi-plausible headline: "World Ends Tomorrow!" Women, minorities hardest hit!" Although the genre it skewers definitely exists (for a classically Californian example from this year, click here), I wonder after four days of fire coverage whether it hasn't been positively dwarfed by its inverse. Instead of bemoaning a catastrophe's effect on society's least powerful (who, almost by definition, are "hardest hit" by most everything), the hated Mainstream Media (MSM) is coughing up headlines like this:

Fires Disrupt Hollywood Lives, Work
Fire affects TV shows, celebrities
Hollywood Under Fire: Richard Gere's Plane Fills With Smoke, Sean Penn's Property Burns

That latter piece, from the ostensibly politically incorrect FoxNews.com, captures the breathless spirit of the type, best read aloud in a Robin Leach voice:

One minute Malibu was a magical Hollywood hideaway, and the next minute it became a place to get away from wildfires that seem to be attacking almost every star-studded property.
"When I flew in, I couldn't believe it," Gere told Fox News on the red carpet of Monday's 11th Annual Hollywood Film Festival gala. "It looked like something out of a nightmare. As we got closer to the ground, my wife started coughing hysterically and the entire plane filled with smoke from the pressure. That's something I've never experienced — I can't imagine what it would be like to have your home threatened like that. It's so awful."

At a time when well over 1,000 homes have been destroyed, celebrity tie-in stories require only the vaguest of proximity. "I'm so glad we don't have a home in the area," John Travolta told Fox News. "But we have so many friends and family who do. So many people in our industry have been affected by this, and my heart just goes out to all of them. People very close to me have already been evacuated, and it is scary."

The most entertaining of these man-on-the-gated-compound stories are the ones dripping with sarcasm and contempt, like this from the Guardian's Lucy Mangan.

But the most pressing global concern is the threat the fires pose to native wildlife — the celebrities who have gathered in various enclaves in the Hollywood Hills and exclusive stretches of beachfront and have, until now, thrived.So far, the only reported damage to a celebrity property is a charred ranch owned by Sean Penn. But Olivia Newton-John, Mel Gibson, James Cameron, Kelsey Grammer and Cher (who may be in bigger danger of melting than burning) [...]And if the air fills with the smell of a burning lute, we'll know that Sting's gated residence has also succumbed.So let us hold a good thought for all the celebrities suffering in SoCal, some of whom are facing the possible loss of an entire one of their homes, and let us pray that they and their property portfolios emerge unscathed.

But that flavor of schadenfreude is only a minority offering in the celebrities-on-fire market. As the cover of Parade magazine attests nearly every week, readers are pounding down the door for any evidence that the rich and famous put on their trousers one leg at a time, just like them.

This sub-category of media was once memorably described to me by a crusty old William Morris agent as "Celebrity Inspirational" — B-listers who can teach the masses how to overcome a tragic childhood, a deficit of love, and the cruelties of fame. Suzanne Somers was mining this vein since long before her first Malibu house was torched.

Isn't this just a case of giving the market what it wants, even if that happens to be non-news about Britney Spears while Malibu burns? Well, sure.

But there's something fundamentally creepy and sad — as well as inevitable — about not being able to relate to a news story unless it's told through the lens of someone you only know from TV. It's like, I dunno, paying top dollar to get management tips from Lance Armstrong. The skills that make one famous usually have little application elsewhere, and the heroism of firefighters holds a lot more interest to me than celebrity proximity to tragedy. Well, unless it's Olivia Newton-John.

Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor; click here to read more of his Opinion Daily columns.Send us your thoughts at opinion@latimes.com.

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