Cover image for Self-exposure : human-interest journalism and the emergence of celebrity in America, 1890-1940
Self-exposure : human-interest journalism and the emergence of celebrity in America, 1890-1940
Ponce de Leon, Charles L. (Charles Leonard)
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 325 pages, 10 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Becoming visible: fame and celebrity in the modern age -- The rise of celebrity journalism -- Exposure or publicity?: the paradox of celebrity journalism -- True success: the master plot of celebrity journalism -- From parasites to public servants: the rehabilitation of the rich -- Practical idealism: political celebrity in an age of reform -- There's no business like show business: celebrity and the popular culture industries -- Heroes and pretenders: athletic celebrity and the commercialization of sports.

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PN4888.S46 P66 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Few features of contemporary American culture are as widely lamented as the public's obsession with celebrity--and the trivializing effect this obsession has on what appears as news. Nevertheless, America's "culture of celebrity" remains misunderstood, particularly when critics discuss its historical roots.

In this pathbreaking book, Charles Ponce de Leon provides a new interpretation of the emergence of celebrity. Focusing on the development of human-interest journalism about prominent public figures, he illuminates the ways in which new forms of press coverage gradually undermined the belief that famous people were "great," instead encouraging the public to regard them as complex, interesting, even flawed individuals and offering readers seemingly intimate glimpses of the "real" selves that were presumed to lie behind the calculated, self-promotional fronts that celebrities displayed in public. But human-interest journalism about celebrities did more than simply offer celebrities a new means of gaining publicity or provide readers with the "inside dope," says Ponce de Leon. In chapters devoted to celebrities from the realms of business, politics, entertainment, and sports, he shows how authors of celebrity journalism used their writings to weigh in on subjects as wide-ranging as social class, race relations, gender roles, democracy, political reform, self-expression, material success, competition, and the work ethic, offering the public a new lens through which to view these issues.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Ambitious Americans have been shaping their public images since the days of Benjamin Franklin, but since the mid-19th century, mass media have played a critical role in giving audiences the inside scoop on their favorite athletes, movie stars, and other popular figures. In this powerfully argued book, Ponce de Leon (Purchase College, SUNY) connects the emergence of a culture of celebrity to economic modernization and the increasing power of national industries and bureaucracy. Average people needed reassurance that their cultural icons had struggled against the same odds they faced, and that while they were special in their talents, celebrities embraced old-fashioned virtues, ranging from modesty and fair play to living simply. Journalists found it convenient to contrast the pluck and everyday virtue of celebrities against a system that was money hungry or outright corrupt. Ponce de Leon has read extensively in the popular press and mastered an enormous secondary literature. Despite his tendency to repeat arguments, this book makes an important contribution to media studies. Its fundamental premise--that celebrity journalism is forged in the collaboration between the media and the people it covers--is both unassailable and impressively illustrated. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. College and university collections. M. J. Birkner Gettysburg College



At first he was simply the "dark horse," the shy, obscure Midwesterner determined to fly solo, the least publicized of the aviators seeking to win the "race" and become the first to complete the dangerous flight across the Atlantic. Because he avoided reporters and the media circus that had developed around the other teams of aviators, little was known about Charles A. Lindbergh. Indeed, until his arrival on Long Island in May 1927 he was nobody. And though his backers in St. Louis had hired two press agents to accompany him, during the week he was in New York Lindbergh remained aloof from the publicity mongering in which rivals engaged. Instead he obsessed over the condition of his plane and the vagaries of the weather. When the press referred to him it was often as the "Flying Fool," a moniker that reflected his obsessiveness and the widespread belief that a solo flight was almost certainly suicidal. All of this changed on May 22, when seemingly against the odds Lindbergh reached the European continent and landed at an airfield outside Paris. Suddenly Lindbergh became the hottest name in the newspaper business. Reams of material about him appeared in the press, detailing every angle of his flight and seeking to illuminate the man who had performed this spectacular feat. The torrent of publicity continued for days, as reporters scurried to learn about Lindbergh's background and personality. Within a week of his flight he had become the most highly publicized person in the world, the subject of an unprecedented outpouring of news and human-interest journalism. Recast by the press as "Lucky Lindy," he was now instantly recognizable, the details of his life well known to millions of people who two weeks before had never heard of Lindbergh or met him in person. To Lindbergh's dismay, many of these details were spurious, the products of rumor and gossip that newspaper editors were willing to publish to satisfy the enormous public demand for information about him. Even worse, much of the information published focused not on aviation, as Lindbergh had hoped, but on his personality and private life, offering the public a seemingly intimate glimpse of the "real" Lindbergh. These developments caught Lindbergh by surprise. He had expected his flight to attract press attention, but he had naively assumed that newspapers would respect his privacy and emphasize his contribution to the field of aviation. This was why he had avoided most reporters after his arrival in New York and shown so little interest in making use of his press agents. Thus Lindbergh was ill prepared for the volume of publicity that his flight would spark and aghast at the kinds of news stories that the press published after his triumph, most of which focused on "Lindbergh the man" rather than "Lindbergh and the cause of aviation." To rectify this, when Lindbergh returned from Europe and embarked on a career as a spokesman for the fledgling aviation industry, he sought to place strict limits on press access to his private life, refusing to answer "personal" questions and cultivating close relations with a few reporters who specialized in the aviation beat and could be trusted to depict him as a serious aviator. Lindbergh's determination to control his media image was reinforced by the powerful businessmen who became his mentors and confidantes in the months after his return to the United States and who saw Lindbergh as the ideal spokesman for a controversial new industry in which they had a large financial stake. Instead of encouraging him to develop better relations with the press, they supported his efforts to draw a line around his personal life, believing that this would make him-and the industry that he embodied-appear more serious and "scientific." In short, while Lindbergh was disdainful of human-interest reporting and sought to restrict the press's ability to depict him in this light, he was quite willing to capitalize on his celebrity to promote the aviation industry and the enterprises in which he and his colleagues were investing. For the next few years he waged a fierce campaign to set the terms of his representation in the press. This campaign was largely a failure. Rather than respect Lindbergh's wishes and steer clear of his private life, many reporters became more assertive in their determination to acquire information about it, bribing servants to get "inside dope" about his home life and stalking Lindbergh and his wife so that they could take candid, unauthorized photographs. By 1930 these efforts had escalated dramatically, infuriating Lindbergh and prompting him to reinforce his defenses against reporters' zealous, ingenious, and often unscrupulous assaults. But in the end, no matter how hard Lindbergh tried to keep the press at bay, he could not prevent reporters from writing human-interest stories about him. And as he became more obstinate about protecting his privacy, his reluctance to "open up" itself became the focus of news stories, drawing attention to Lindbergh's interest in manipulating the press. Lindbergh's peculiar fate-the sudden notoriety, the relentless invasion of his privacy, the superficial and occasionally spurious information that the press published about him, his dogged efforts to control his image and cash in on his fame-was not unusual. It was a common experience for those thrust from obscurity into the spotlight of celebrity. And though no previous figure may have experienced quite the level of press scrutiny and harassment that Lindbergh did, many celebrities in later years found themselves in a similar situation, torn between a desire to exploit their fame and an equally powerful one to retreat from the glare of publicity and limit the ways in which the press could portray them. Lindbergh's case was among the first to inspire journalistic introspection about America's culture of celebrity, as editors and feature writers debated whether some members of the profession had gone too far. This sort of soul searching would accompany virtually every celebrity scandal of the twentieth century, from the hue and cry over the morality of movie stars in the 1920s to the media's hysterical response to the affair involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s. By Lindbergh's day it had become clear to journalists and many of their readers that celerity was an acute cultural problem with important cultural repercussions. Indeed, perhaps no feature if the contemporary American scene inspires so much anguish among pundits and social critics as the American public's obsession with celebrity. It is an obsession, they contend, that exerts a pernicious influence on the news media, the major culture industries, business, politics, sports, even the world of high culture. Contempt for the culture of celebrity cuts across ideological lines, uniting liberals and conservatives who can agree on little else. Much of this criticism is perceptive and well intentioned, revealing disturbing trends that should alarm anyone concerned about the future and unsatisfied with the glib celebration of the ephemeral that many advertisers, designers, artists, and self-styled postmodernist scholars have been engaged in for the past twenty or so years. But much criticism of celebrity is also vague or simple-minded about the causes and historical antecedents of this undeniably important phenomenon. The aim of this book is to deepen our understanding of the place of celebrity in modern American culture, providing its critics-and I count myself among them-with more solid footing from which to assail it, but also enabling us to appreciate some of its features that from the conventional vantage point appear perverse or simply bizarre. For example, critics must accept that celebrity is intimately related to modernity-that this unique way of thinking about public figures, which differs so dramatically from the hagiographic discourse of fame, is a direct outgrowth of developments that most of us regard as progressive: the spread of a market economy and the rise of democratic, individualistic values. Throughout modern history these developments have steadily eroded all sources of authority, including the aura that formerly surrounded the "great." The culture of celebrity is not some grotesque mutation afflicting an otherwise healthy organism, but one of its central features, a condition arising directly from the encouragement that modern societies provide for social mobility and self-invention. Acknowledging this need not dispirit critics or swell the ranks of the postmodern chorus who are loath to criticize anything from which consumers derive a modicum of pleasure; if anything, it can make our criticism more penetrating, allowing us to direct our guns not at surface phenomena but at the deeper forces that corrode faith in authenticity and fuel the public curiosity about celebrities that can only be satisfied by invading their privacy or compelling them to engage in degrading rituals of self-exposure. When I first began this project I was as hostile to the culture of celebrity as its fiercest critics, and I fully expected to produce a book that would contribute to their often distinguished literature. Yet over time, as I immersed myself in the sources on which the book is based, I became increasingly surprised by the complexity of the culture of celebrity-by ambiguities and contradictions that did not fit the pattern established by leading scholars and critics. This discovery was affirmed when I familiarized myself with developments in the growing field of cultural studies and came to recognize the usefulness of some of its methods and assumptions, particularly its insistence that mass-produced popular culture is Janus-faced, a repository of utopian hopes as well as a vehicle encouraging acceptance of the status quo. I have tried to keep these complexities uppermost in my mind; at the same time, I have tried not to lose sight of the broader concerns that drew me to this project in the first place and inspire many critics of the culture of celebrity. The result, I hope, works as criticism and also as scholarship. But first, a few caveats. This book is not a comprehensive history of celebrity; nor is it about celebrities and the experience of being famous. Rather, it is concerned with the role of the mass-circulation press in the development of celebrity as a particular kind of public visibility, and focuses on human-interest journalism about celebrities. In other words, this is a book about representations of celebrities in the mass media-media images, not the people behind them. Rather than dismiss such images, as the vast majority of debunking biographers do, I take them seriously and use them to explore the larger symbolic role of celebrity in modern America. There is good reason for this. In the course of my research, I became convinced that the news media-defined broadly to include publications and programs that many professional journalists revile-are the most important institutions that sustain the culture of celebrity. By virtue of their ability to make public figures visible and familiar to millions of people who have never encountered them in the flesh, it is the news media that literally create celebrities. This is not to say that other institutions play no role. For example, as scholars in cinema studies have demonstrated, the motion pictures and television programs that actors appear in are important in shaping seductive "star images" that cut across various media and can have tremendous iconographic power. But as we shall see, the culture of celebrity operates according to different principles and is geared toward the exposure of the "real selves" that are presumed to lie behind these images-a project in which the news media, because of their association with facts, play the central role. Indeed, a major theme of celebrity journalism is that movie roles, professional activities, and public appearances are unreliable as guides to the nature of such selves and must be supplemented with "inside dope"-preferably about a celebrity's private life, packaged as human-interest feature material-that is more accurate and thus revealing. Of course, this inside dope itself may not be real-it can be, in fact, yet another image-but its packaging as news gives it more authority than other forms of visibility and makes it the best place to begin in our effort to understand the phenomenon of celebrity. My belief that the news media are the most important institutions responsible for creating celebrities does not mean that I believe celebrities themselves to be mere pawns of the press. Most of them are active in fashioning their media images, and some of the best historical work in recent years has examined how individuals in the past-from the eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield to the aviator Amelia Earhart-brought themselves to the attention of their countrymen through the strategic presentation of personas. To do so, however, they had to be conscious of the mechanisms by which people in their time became visible and had to tailor their efforts in order to take advantage of these mechanisms. Since the early nineteenth century this has meant familiarizing themselves with the conventions of newsgathering and subjects of interest to the press. To be lifted to the status of a celebrity, one must be newsworthy or interesting in the eyes of the news media, a person whom journalists think their readers or viewers want to know about. More often than not, people achieve this status not by accident but through conscious effort, by following a carefully mapped out plan for attracting publicity and projecting an image that will make them interesting and attractive to the media-the essential conduits through which individuals are made visible to the public. Even those who become celebrities through no efforts of their own quickly learn how to use the media to make the best of the situation. This book, as the title suggests, also has chronological limits of which the reader should be aware. Aside from a brief epilogue, I do not examine contemporary celebrity journalism; instead, I focus on its manifestations between 1890 and the early 1940s. Here too I was motivated by a logic that did not become apparent until I was well into my research. Though the origins of celebrity journalism can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century, and I could have devoted the entire book to this fascinating and important moment, I soon discovered that the various forms of reportage that make up the genre did not mature until early in the twentieth century, when most newspapers and magazines, in their efforts to meet the needs of new kinds of readers, increased their commitment to the publication of feature stories and developed the narrative themes that still dominate the genre. Continues... Excerpted from Self-Exposure by Charles L. Ponce de Leon Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1 Becoming Visible Fame and Celebrity in the Modern Agep. 11
2 The Rise of Celebrity Journalismp. 42
3 Exposure or Publicity? the Paradox of Celebrity Journalismp. 76
4 True Success the Master Plot of Celebrity Journalismp. 106
5 From Parasites to Public Servants the Rehabilitation of the Richp. 141
6 Practical Idealism Political Celebrity in an Age of Reformp. 172
7 There's No Business like Show Business Celebrity and the Popular Culture Industriesp. 206
8 Heroes and Pretenders Athletic Celebrity and the Commercialization of Sportsp. 241
Epiloguep. 274
Notesp. 283
Indexp. 315