Not all podcasts are the same. Putting a celebrity in front of a microphone does not mean that person participates in journalism. Especially when the host is also a celebrity.
If you’re not a listener, I’m referring to the growing genre of podcasts featuring Hollywood actors, musicians, and other prominent names speaking to other celebrities about their lives, opinions, and current affairs. These programs may share a basic format with journalistic endeavors, but are not bound by the same standards and practices.
Perhaps your thoughts have gone to Kanye West (now known as Ye) and his recent bigotry appearance on the Drink Champs podcast. That’s just one example in an industry where celebrities — or, in some cases, artists-turned-media personalities — have expanded their interests into hosting.
Maybe it’s an attempt to regain some measure of control. Celebrity reporting has always had its share of dubious practitioners – from reporters who flatter their subjects and overlook inconvenient truths in order to maintain access, to those who trade gossip and meanness for the sake of meanness.
Whatever the reason for celebrities recasting themselves as pseudo-journalists, some skepticism is warranted because they so often falter when confronted with something that could jeopardize their personal relationships. These hosts lack the willingness — and know-how — to engage in anything other than a softball talk.
Friends do it privately. But for public consumption? What conflicts of interest are there, especially if both parties are either friends or simply in the same professional circles?
What types of overcorrection take place to ensure a guest never struggles with anything that might even hint at an inconvenient truth? What are these conversations? are not happens because there is a tacit understanding among celebrities of what is up for discussion or not?
This week, on Meghan Markle’s Archetypes podcast, Meghan Markle interviews Paris Hilton about the “bimbo” and “dumb blonde” clichés. Markle is a shrewd and thoughtful host interested in analyzing why society is so quick to embrace categories that reduce women to simplistic and negative traits.
Is Hilton the only person with knowledge on this topic? Is she the most thoughtful? Probably not. But she’s famous. And it’s worth noting that the podcast consistently features celebrities as main guests.
Something happens when celebrities interview other celebrities. Everything reeks of PR and superlatives and mutual admiration, making everyone feel empowered. So much so that when Markle praises Hilton’s business acumen by saying, among other things, “She’s launched her very own NFT collection,” she should be pointing out what’s conspicuously missing.
Consumer advocacy group Truth in Advertising has located 19 celebrities, including Hilton, who may be involved in promoting NFTs without disclosing their connection to these projects. In August, the group sent letters to each celebrity, noting that “we have found that celebrity NFT promotions are an area fraught with deception, including but not limited to the failure to establish the promoter’s material connection to the supported NFT.” companies to be clear and conspicuous,” and asked Hilton to “immediately disclose those material connections wherever the promotions are conducted.”
Markle has been the subject of all manner of irrational media coverage, and her podcast quietly aims to undermine that. She notes that she’s not interested in passing judgment, so perhaps asking questions that explore Hilton more deeply — questions that may not line up with an empowering narrative — would break the tone of the podcast. An approach that certainly benefits their celebrity guests, but is significantly less informative for their listeners. That in itself is a judgment call, and suggests that the only way to respect a person’s humanity is to carefully avoid asking worthwhile questions.
Ultimately, the episode is less about a dig at the chick archetype and more about why Hilton adopted a dumb blonde persona as a defense mechanism. That’s fine, but it’s a narrow focus that’s specific to one person’s experience—the experience of a celebrity. The fascination with how celebrities experience the world and the idea that we and should extrapolating something universal from it has proven to be a consistently profitable phenomenon throughout pop culture.
There’s also Hilton’s alleged history of racist comments, which isn’t discussed here either. Considering Markle has faced rampant racism on social media and, in a more veiled form, from certain corners of the British press, it’s bewildering that she would uncritically invite Hilton onto her show, thereby legitimizing her.
But maybe it’s not confusing. Because from the outside, it can often appear that the rich and famous prioritize maintaining at least the facade of friendly relations rather than telling the truth to the powerful. You take care of me, I take care of you.
Actor Jon Bernthal hosts his own podcast, and not long ago he had a sympathetic chat with fellow actor Shia LaBeouf. It’s an episode that could be interpreted as the latter’s attempt at image rehabilitation ahead of a spring court case in which he allegedly assaulted ex-girlfriend FKA Twigs and caused her mental anguish.
One can be professional and respectful without ignoring the elephant in the room. Or let someone distract you. Or leave questionable claims unchallenged. Smart journalists, ethical journalists, know that this is a fundamental part of the job. It takes practice to learn how to do it well. It’s not mean or judgmental — it’s the art of the interview. We shouldn’t expect celebrities – even the brightest of them, even those we admire – to have these skills or even have a desire to learn them. But that also means that we have to listen critically.
Celebrities are allowed to host as many podcasts as they want. But that’s not journalism. This is public relations. Sometimes it’s very artfully crafted PR that feels like it’s filled with substance, but it’s PR nonetheless. And it should at least be treated with some skepticism about the motivations and image management behind it.
We often talk about the importance of media literacy when it comes to distinguishing between hard news coverage and opinion columns and gossip articles that have no single named source. But just as important is media literacy when it comes to absorbing information about celebrities. We are all better off the better informed we are about the media we consume.
The good news: Illinois recently became the first state in the country to require that media literacy be taught in high schools.
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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