How rich black men are really stories about white rich people that the tabloids know you can relate to?
Watching the spectacle of former basketball great and cast away reality star, Lamar Odom self implode (at its zenith) has served to raise questions as to what constitutes news, culture and relevance in the American domain.
The fact that a 35 year old man who has been known time after time to lose his focus and go on drug binges received so much press coverage as this time his life hung in the immediate balance (life or death) speaks to the type of news journalism that has evolved in recent years.
Gone mostly are the lengthy critically provocative journalism pieces that sought to methodically discover how society, culture or a particular niche operated and what challenges lay ahead. Such journalism is hard to come by these days and is hardly what gets consumed by readers who have in recent years been treated to bullet point hyperbole jingoisms meant to tug at emotional heart strings and the rush to be the first on the tape.
One can thank the proliferation of reality shows, the rise of banal sensational headlines each trying to outdo the other and America’s denouement of thorough and thoughtful analysis of culture for the preference of 99 cent fire sale ‘delicious’ hamburgers on the go. It’s what sells fast and what keeps editors and their journalistic teams employed.
Yet that hardly begins to explain why Lamar Odom, an African American man was given so much airtime. Yes the structural tendencies of how media reports may have informed most media agencies as to why the live step by step decimation and resurrection of a reality star became a must for many media outlets, but why this reality star and why in particularly, this black man who like many are disproportionately in the throes of ravaging addiction that so often sends them to jail, keeps them at the margins and leads to family collapse and the ever bitter cycle on and on.
First one has to understand, journalism is no longer a virtuous profession. It’s an industry dominated by expedience, cynicism, opportunity and choosing whose side one is going to represent, embolden or denigrate.
It’s a structural impediment that influences what stories get picked up and how those stories are picked up and within that realm one also has to try to decipher where that news outlet’s allegiance lies, whose readers and interests it curries and what agenda it editorially seeks to covert.
Let’s take the dailymail who have never been shy giving page time to the Kardashian clan. On any given day one can find up to 40 articles dedicated to the reality clan. How the family manages to gain so much coverage is not easily understood. Does the media entity have a contractual financial relationship with the reality clan, with its agents, representatives or is it cleverly monetizing stories of vapid themes with ingenuous ad campaigns?
Either way the clan takes precedence for the biggest tabloid in the world and by proxy other media outlets who seek to share in the breadcrumbs that follow suit (fully secure in the knowledge that outlets like the dailymail in essence because of their size and influence set the cultural agenda of what get’s covered and read ahead of other stories).
On the surface the Kardashian clan and Lamar Odom who was brought into the family have a lot to offer to an aspirational America who have been taught that taking selfies and narcissistically posting such images on social media is the right way to go (who did this before 2008, would you have dared?). Again the operative word- aspirational.
The Kardashians represent an aspirational narrative, the implied message that any ordinary family can make it and by proxy be famous, virtuous and successful. But little is discussed that had Kim Kardashian had come from a family where her father did not happen to be an important influential lawyer and her mother a skillful manager and by then already hanging off the heels of who was already the originator of society folly and intrigue (Paris Hilton) the release of Kim’s sex tape in 2007 would have landed her ridicule and contempt as it does most these days. Except for the well to do and socially connected.
Again the media glosses over such details and feeds into such too good to believe story lines, feeding their page hits and the parasitic relationship that begins to co exist.
The Kardashian clan resemble a kind of escape of the bitter reality of what it takes to make it in America, a wonderful diversion of the inconvenient reality that most Americans economic progress over 30 years has not kept up with the top 10%. A discussion that is often too uncomfortable to tango with and not one where most media agencies are too willing to get behind, fully understanding that their advertisers are the very top ten percent who are winning and not willing to consistently offend and for good reason.
So it’s off to the races with the Kardashian fantasy clan and their wins, travails, challenges and the savvy coexistence of social media to help propel their stories as the only ones that count.
Was Caitlyn Jenner formally Bruce Jenner the first transgender individual with a crises? What about the many transgender individuals from the dregs of society who are continuously harassed, bullied and marginalized in society and even commit suicide? Are they being chosen and offered awards in front of baying crowds? But to her credit Caitlyn was the most glamorous and wealthiest individual with a built in relations arm dedicated to her travails, and by proxy the brand and shoot off reality show.
And what of Lamar Odom, a troubled man dealing with his demons, his failure to remain a basketball star, his inability to put aside his addictions, to contend with his heightened public persona (at a multimillion dollar packages by the way…) – how did he come to attract so much attention while so many other black men, including his own father, a heroin addict, are never given any serious regard to their addiction and how they found themselves becoming addicted and ostracized?
What makes the story of a rich African American basketball player, married into a famous reality family any more plausible than another average African American man (or for that matter a white man too) unable to shake off their addiction of a molotov of drug cocktails, including opiates, crack cocaine and straight up cocaine?
Here’s a real account of crack cocaine use and addiction that one doesn’t too often come across courtesy of foreign media outlet, aljazeera:
Just 1 in 29 Americans have tried crack, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
The age group with the highest percentage of users in 2013 was 50-54 years old. For 12th graders, the annual prevalence is around 1 percent, having declined from a peak of about 4 percent in 1987. Overall, 58,000 people tried crack for their first time during the most recent year the survey was taken.
“Most crack cocaine consumers are white,” Daniel Robelo of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance told Al Jazeera. “However, most people arrested, charged and incarcerated for crack cocaine use are black and Latino. Eighty-two percent of people [federally] sentenced in 2012 for crack cocaine were black.” Of those who used the drug in the last 30 days, 28 percent were African-American.
Yet the overriding coverage of Lamar Odom’s descent to hell didn’t dwell on the pernicious drug itself, how one finds themselves addicted (all classes, particularly rich white men, but let’s not reveal that secret), never mind whose most at risk of addiction and incarceration (poor black and latino men)? These are inconvenient themes that don’t tie in too well with the brand image of a ‘superstar’ who married into a well heeled and very wealthy family with ongoing constant press until the moon rises.
By virtue of being rich, a formerly successful sportsman and connected to an equally rich white family, the implied message is that Lamar Odom is not black. Black in color and race, but not in stigmatized cultural domain and certainly not one who should be concerned about being sent away to prison as most other ‘poor’ black men in his position would be.
Somehow when a black man is able to become supremely wealthy he is no longer branded as the archetype black man but a kind of every day hero that ‘white’ people (the purported consumers of culture) can suddenly or more comfortably relate to.
The real tabloid drama that the dailymail and most media outlets are loathe to point out is how the black male and marginalized of society do not matter. Who only matters are white people or to put it bluntly how black people or marginalized people relate to white people? When a black man matters is when he is being beaten up by the white establishment, then and only then can we go to bat for the beaten down black man oppressed by the system.
Until then we rarely care how a black men can positively add to society, unless he is of course a rich black man, until then he is discarded, relegated to his embittered existence, prejudice, higher incarceration rates and systematic abuse, which from time to time the media will cover, especially at the hands of privileged white police.
What are we then to make of the media’s coverage of Lamar Odom as he now wakes up out of his coma, relieved that he is alive. What would Lamar Odom make of it? His private life a sad and lamentable public spectacle which has in many ways lampooned him and trivialized his demons and by proxy furthered the Kardashian clan’s brand (because they showed they cared by turning up to his bedside hospital).
Perhaps his millions will buy him a solution and the media will move on to the next actor, celebrity, reality star having an existential breakdown, near death or actual death drug overdose and we will all point, try to learn, understand and sympathize.
But here’s the bitter reality: America is a polarized society, with class warfare on the full and the media ever skeptical and reticent to give the undercurrents of our times more airtime, because even the Kardashians can tell you: ‘In America it’s about the dream, the fantasy, that if you keep pushing forward you too will make it and become your gilded multi millionaire.’
Try telling that to the many wealthy amongst you caught up in your own existential hell, maybe the tabloids might take notice … before you overdose. Try telling that to the many average stiffs struggling just to pay their rent and one day evicted for failing to make it in America. The real tabloid story is your very own life, the one that most media outlets will shy away from reporting ….