Not all podcasts are created equal. Putting a famous person in front of the microphone does not mean that they are engaged in journalistic activity. Especially when the host is also a celebrity.
If you’re not a listener, I’m referring to the growing podcast genre of Hollywood actors, musicians, and other bold-faced names talking to other celebrities about their lives, their opinions, and the issues of the day. These programs may share a basic format with journalistic endeavors, but they are not bound by any of the same standards and practices.
Perhaps your mind wandered to Kanye West (who now goes by Ye) and his recent bigoted appearance on the Drink Champs podcast. This is just one example in an industry where celebrities – or in some cases artists turned media personalities – have expanded their interests into hosting.
Perhaps this is an effort to regain some measure of control. Celebrity reporting has always had its share of questionable practitioners, from reporters who pander to their subjects and gloss over inconvenient truths to maintain access, to those who spread gossip and malice for the sake of nastiness.
Whatever the reason for celebrities masquerading as pseudo-journalists, some skepticism is warranted since they so often go awry when faced with something that could threaten their personal relationships. There’s a lack of desire — and know-how — on the part of these hosts to engage in more than softball talk.
In private, that’s what friends do. But for public consumption? What are the conflicts of interest, especially when both parties are friends or simply move in the same professional circles?
What kinds of overcorrections are made to ensure that the guest never has to contend with anything that might even hint at an inconvenient truth? What are the conversations that they are not is it happening because there is a tacit understanding among celebrities about what is or isn’t on the table for discussion?
This week on Meghan Markle’s Archetypes podcast, she interviews Paris Hilton about the “bimbo” and “dumb blonde” stereotypes. Markle is a smart and thoughtful host who is interested in analyzing why society is so quick to adopt categories that reduce women to simplistic and negative traits.
Is Hilton the only person with insights on this topic? Is she the most thoughtful? Probably not. But she is famous. And remarkably, the podcast consistently features celebrities as featured guests.
Something happens when celebrities interview other celebrities. Everything has an air of PR and superlatives and mutual admiration and ensures that everyone feels encouraged. So much so that when Markle praises Hilton’s business acumen, saying, among other things, “she launched her own NFT collection,” it’s worth pointing out what’s clearly missing.
Consumer watchdog group Truth in Advertising has named 19 celebrities, including Hilton, who it says may be involved in promoting NFTs without disclosing their connection to those projects. In August, the group sent letters to each celebrity noting that “we have found celebrity NFT promotions to be an area rife with fraud, including but not limited to failure to clearly and conspicuously disclose the promoter’s material relationship with the approved NFT company” and urged Hilton to “immediately disclose these material connections wherever promotions are made.”
Markle has been the subject of all kinds 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 probe Hilton more deeply — questions that might not fit the empowerment narrative — would break the tone of the podcast. It’s an approach that’s certainly helpful for her celebrity guests, but considerably less informative for her listeners. This in itself is judgmental and pretends that the only way to respect a person’s humanity is to carefully avoid worthwhile questions.
Ultimately, the episode is less a dig at the bimbo archetype and more about why Hilton has adopted a dumb blonde as a defense mechanism. That’s fine, but it’s a narrow focus specific to one person’s experience—the experience of a celebrity. The fascination with how celebrities experience the world and the idea that we can Must extrapolates something universal from it has proven to be a consistently winning phenomenon throughout pop culture.
There is also an alleged history of racist comments by Hilton, which is also not discussed here. Given that Markle has been subjected to rampant racism on social media and in a more veiled form from some corners of the British press, it’s puzzling that she would uncritically invite Hilton on her show and, in general, legitimize her.
But perhaps not confusing. Because from the outside it can often appear that the rich and famous prioritize maintaining at least the facade of friendly relations over speaking truth to power. You take care of me, I’ll take care of you.
Actor Jon Bernthal hosts his own podcast, and he recently featured a cute conversation with fellow actor Shia LaBeouf. This is an episode that can be interpreted as an attempt by the latter to rehabilitate his image before a case that is due to go to court in the spring, in which he is alleged to have assaulted and caused emotional distress to his ex-girlfriend FKA twigs.
One can be professional and respectful without ignoring the elephant in the room. Or letting someone drift. Or allowing questionable claims to go unchallenged. Smart journalists, ethical journalists, know that this is a major part of the job. It takes practice to learn how to do it well. It’s not mean or judgmental – that’s the art of interviewing. We shouldn’t expect celebrities—even the most intelligent among them, even those we admire—to have these skills or even the desire to learn them. But it also means we must listen with a critical ear.
Celebrities are allowed to host as many podcasts as they want. But this is not journalism. This is public relations. Sometimes it’s very well-crafted PR that feels like it’s full of content, but it’s still PR. And it should be treated with at least some skepticism about the motives and image management behind it.
We often talk about the importance of media literacy when it comes to distinguishing between hard news reporting and opinion and gossip columns that don’t have a single named source on the record. But media literacy is just as vital when absorbing information about celebrities. We are all better off the more informed we are about the media we consume.
The good news: Illinois recently became the first state in the country to require media literacy to be taught in high school.
Nina Metz is a critic for the Tribune
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