Celebrities and politicians have always shared a symbiotic relationship with journalists. Actors and actresses need people to write about their movies and other projects to gain publicity, which prompts people to see them, which is how they make their money. Journalists need stories to write to appease the people who read their publications and want to know every little sordid detail about their favorite celebrities. It’s even worse with politicians. They need the media to further their agendas and gain votes. Meanwhile, the public is always waiting for at least one shoe to drop in the form of affairs, illegitimate children, or some other scandals in the papers, magazines, and on the Web. But now it seems that politicians and celebrities have found a way to either justify the things they really want to say, or to shirk responsibility when they say something they shouldn’t have—they blame the journalist.
It’s become such a commonplace tactic that it’s gained a name—gotcha journalism—a term first coined in 1982, and then used by John McCain during his presidential bid when he came to the defense of his running mate, Sarah Palin, who had voiced an opinion diametrically opposed to his own. When asked whether the United States should be able to execute a raid in Pakistan to find and neutralize terrorists without that country’s knowledge or permission, Palin said, “If that’s what we have to do to stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely we should.”
That’s not how McCain felt about the prospect, and when asked why his choice for Vice President expressed a view different from his on such a sensitive subject, McCain chalked it up to “gotcha journalism,” saying that sometimes, when an interview is conducted in a “pizza place…you don’t hear…the question very well, you don’t know the context of the conversation.”
When a politician is asked whether the United States should be able to conduct covert military operations in another country without that country’s permission, wouldn’t it be advisable to make sure they understand the question fully before they offer some glib answer? But rather than take responsibility for at best a poorly researched answer, and at worst, a true sentiment that such an operation should be allowed to occur, McCain said it wasn’t Palin’s fault. It was gotcha journalism, some sort of conspiracy among reporters and interviewers to put Palin, and other politicians, in the worst light possible.
While this sort of blame game can come in especially handy for politicians running for office, celebrities have found it to be an effective way to keep the jobs they put in jeopardy by expressing their true opinions about the movies and shows in which they appear. Case in point: Chloë Sevigny.
Sevigny stars as one of Bill Paxton’s wives in the HBO drama Big Love. The show started out as a dramatic look into the lives of a polygamist family, but has become more and more outlandish in its plot twists and turns with every season. A reporter from the well regarded entertainment site A.V. Club interviewed her, and when asking her about the show’s move toward the unbelievable, told her that when he and his wife watch Big Love, they refer to it as “Mormon Dynasty,” a reference to the over-the-top ’80s prime time soap opera.
Sevigny’s comment was, “It was awful this season, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not allowed to say that! [Gasps.] It was very telenovela. I feel like it kind of got away from itself.” By her own admission, she was saying something she knew the show’s producers weren’t going to be happy about, yet she went on: “I mean, I love the show, I love my character, I love the writing, but I felt like they were really pushing it this last season.”
No one appreciates that kind of backhanded compliment, least of all the people who pay the person making those statements. Over the course of nearly a year, from March 2010 when the interview took place, to January 2011, Sevigny and series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer spun the incident to make it seem as if the journalist had somehow tricked Sevigny into making those less-than-complimentary comments about their show. Olsen and Scheffer said the interview was conducted during a party where Sevigny had gotten a “little bit drunk on champagne,” which was obviously why she said things she didn’t mean. The poor girl was taken advantage of.
The journalist who interviewed her, Sean O’Neal, responded by explaining the interview had taken place around noontime, was “overseen by several publicists,” and where nothing stronger than coffee and bottled water was available. To refuse to take responsibility for her words, and to collude with the show’s creators to spin it so that O’Neal somehow comes out as not only the bad guy, but a liar and manipulator is unconscionable. Sevigny should have stepped up, taken responsibility for what she said, and accepted the consequences. If she’s unable to do that, maybe she just shouldn’t give interviews.
At the same time that so many people cry out for journalistic integrity, and state their desire for unbiased, accurate reporting, they also seem very quick to accept these kinds of flimsy excuses made by people who got caught being honest and speaking their minds. Before anyone blames the journalist, they must consider the motives of the people laying that blame.
Caroline Ruddy is a freelance writer pursuing her dream of being published. Although she’s never worked for a newspaper or magazine, she has tremendous respect for journalists and the work they do.