Gary Busey: I’ve Seen Ghosts! Tori Spelling – Porn King Gunning For Sex Tape! Hells Angels Sues Young Jeezy Over Skull Logo! As you could probably guess, these headlines haven’t been ripped from the Chronicle of Higher Education. No, they come from the internet’s foremost capital of celebrity gossip, TMZ. In eight short years, TMZ has constructed a multimedia gossip empire that now encompasses the flagship website, a syndicated TV series called TMZ on TV, and even celebrity sightseeing bus tours of New York and Los Angeles.
But all the success that TMZ has enjoyed is a certain type of success. Founder Harvey Levin (who is also the cohost of the TMZ Live webcast and makes frequent appearances on TMZ on TV) and other prominent TMZ figures have surely reaped a great deal of financial success from the site. They also enjoy a great deal of a certain type of social capital – image-conscious celebrities and their handlers likely hold a great deal of (perhaps grudging) respect for TMZ’s ability to impact their careers. Nevertheless, all of the success and influence that TMZ and the figures associated with it have enjoyed in some circles (such as Hollywood) and by some measures (such as financial success) likely inhibits their access to other forms of success and influence. Celebrity-tracking is a strong cultural current in our society, but hand-wringing over the vacuousness of celebrity-tracking is also prevalent and influential. To publicly associate oneself with TMZ is most likely to permanently disqualify oneself from the good graces (not to mention the cocktail party invitation lists) of people who write articles and give speeches like this one. After all, the critics (implicitly) reason, is not a preoccupation with the frivolous escapades of Gary Busey, rather than with the harsh, heavy realities of social injustice, evidence of profound moral shortcomings? And to get rich off of Busey’s antics in the process….it’s the height of tackiness and unseriousness.
That’s really the heart of the matter – unseriousness. To be Harvey Levin is, I suspect, to follow a path in life with the knowledge that, for all the path’s rewards, following it means permanently disqualifying oneself from the ranks of the serious in many influential people’s eyes. Levin, after all, is an educated man – a lawyer – who can’t plausibly claim blissful obliviousness to the fact that many of his fellow educated people find his pursuits tacky at best and a reprehensible abandonment of one’s moral obligation toward social justice at worst. As someone following a path – graduate school – in which avoiding a tag of frivolity and superficiality is of utmost importance, there is a part of me that is slightly envious of the secure sense of self that someone like Harvey Levin must have. To be willing to stand up and publicly talk about Gary Busey, knowing full well that doing so will provoke sneers from so many influential and socially-esteemed people, is, I dare suggest, brave. Is it the moral equivalent of bravely standing up to injustice? Of course not, but it is a form of bravery nonetheless. Robert F. Kennedy once observed that “few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society.” Again, I’m not suggesting that the way in which Harvey Levin braves the disapproval of his fellows is the moral equivalent of the way, for instance, Gandhi braved his. (And I certainly don’t think that Sir Ben Kingsley will ever star in a Harvey Levin biopic.) But I’m nonetheless fascinated by Levin’s willingness to make the choices he has made and accept the sacrifices that they entail.