Idol Chatter

How did you feel last week? Was everything running as normal, but something–something you couldn’t put your finger on–was different? Did you notice a certain “hotness” missing, even though the weather was mild?

Perhaps you too were suffering from PHWS–Paris Hilton Withdrawal Syndrome.

In a delightfully devious experiment, the Associated Press decided to blackout all coverage of the Hilton hotel heiress for one week. The AP’s intent was not to force readers to focus on more important issues–say the war in Iraq or global warming–but was motivated by pure curiosity, as all great science is.

“[The] editors just wanted to see what would happen if we didn’t cover this media phenomenon, this creature of the Internet gossip age, for a full week,” wrote the AP. “After that, we’d take it day by day. Would anyone care? Would anyone notice? And would that tell us something interesting?”

As so often happens with experimentation, the results were surprising: “None of the thousands of media outlets that depend on AP called in asking for a Paris Hilton story,” the AP reported, adding that “No one felt a newsworthy event had been ignored. (To be fair, nothing too out-of-the-ordinary happened in the Hilton universe.)”

Luckily, PHWS is easily treated with a simple infusion of US Weekly, In Touch, and Life & Style magazines, which can be found at the checkout counter of your local grocery or drug store. Or, in case PHWS becomes a real emergency, simply log on to the nearest computer with internet access. (Warning: Tabloids are not recommended for people who normally enjoy The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, or The Nation and should not be handled by women who are pregnant or who are thinking of becoming pregnant.)

The ease of the getting a Paris fix may explain why many people never experienced the excruciating withdrawal symptoms associated with PHWS, which are an aversion to all things pink, the overwhelming need to declare everything to be “Not hot,” and sudden urges to read Dostoyevsky’s entire cannon in one sitting.

But, like so many other great scientific explorations–the cloning of Dolly the sheep, stem cell research–this was another experiment from which another controversy erupted.

“The reaction was to the idea of the ban, not the effects of it. There was some internal hand-wringing,” the AP reported. “Some felt we were tinkering dangerously with the news. Whom, they asked, would we ban next? Others loved the idea. ‘I vote we do the same for North Korea,’ one AP writer said facetiously.

“During ‘blackout week,’ the AP didn’t mention Hilton’s second birthday party at a Beverly Hills restaurant, at which a drunken friend reportedly was ejected by security after insulting Paula Abdul and Courtney Love. And editors asked our Puerto Rico bureau not to write about her visit there to hawk her fragrance,” the AP said.

Putting Paris Hilton aside for a moment, but just for a moment, one has to ask if it is right for a news organization to make a concerted effort to not cover items that–for better or for worse–are considered by today’s public to be news worthy. At one point this would have been a no brainer: Paris Hilton’s social doings would be covered by television entertainment programs such as “Entertainment Tonight,” and hard news would be carried by the nightly news broadcast. But in an age where Katie Couric is covering soft news from behind, or rather in front of, the CBS news desk, the lines are no longer so clear between entertainment and information.

And while at first I was appalled by the idea that a global news organization would censor their own coverage, I soon came to see that one could just think of it as the editorial process in reverse. It can be argued that a wire service cannot and should not be as selective as a magazine when it comes to coverage. But normally editors decide what stories should be covered. In this case, they simply decided which stories not to cover.

Let us know if you think the AP’s blackout of Paris Hilton coverage was “hot” or “not.”

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