TMZ, McDonald’s, Circuit City, and nipple slips

“Schadenfreude is the greatest joy.”

Americans, perhaps, caught on late to the concept of schadenfreude. We arrived so deep into the game of reveling in others’ misery that we who speak English don’t even have our own word for it. Maybe it was because, in the early days of colonization, we were too busy actually building a country to make fun of the fact John Smith had syphilis. Or, maybe our Western wit had failed to sharpen to the point needed to truly take pleasure in other’s misfortune.

Today, though, it is fair to say America has embraced the concept of schadenfreude. Or, in the spirit of many American “creations,” we stole it from somewhere else, bastardized it, and made it trite and disgusting.

In 2005, did not exist. Today, it gets millions of hits per month and is used as a source by major news networks. Its popularity has grown to such a degree, TMZ advertisers have included McDonald’s, Kraft, Proctor and Gamble, and Circuit City.

To be fair, who among us hasn’t enjoyed seeing Paris Hilton be a celebitch? Who hasn’t taken a little pleasure in seeing some of the world’s biggest stars without make-up? It diddles a little spot in our brains to see the ivory tower of celebrity is often made of soap. I look at TMZ and its ilk like I would porn–alone and mildly embarrassed about it. In fact, I can honestly say that I browse websites such as with a hell of a lot more pride than I do with TMZ.

Embarrassed, however, can quickly turn to disgust. In the few years since TMZ sprang up from the gutter, it has devolved from reporting celebrity news to exploiting such laugh-a-minute subjects as drug abuse and mental illness. One need look no further than the last few months of coverage of Britney Spears.

In 2006, TMZ head honcho Harvey Levin, the one-time television b-lister and People’s Court hack, told the New York Times, “Britney is gold, she is crack to our readers. Her life is a complete train-wreck and I thank God for her every day.”

Levin must have been on his knees a lot in recent months, because Spears has gone from flashing her netherparts to full blown mental destruction. In just the past couple of weeks, Spears has twice been sent to psychiatric facilities against her will. According to TMZ, Spears has recently been declared “Gravely Disabled,” meaning she is now a candidate for involuntary commitment.

Pretty damned hilarious, no?

TMZ and Levin will claim they are only reporting the news as they find it. It makes no difference to them whether Spears’ bipolar disorder is “news” per se. It makes no difference whether the reporting of a quick mental decline and the family strife it causes is gross and exploitive. It makes no difference if TMZ mixes its “reporting” with descriptions like “popwreck.” TMZ will report it because people read it. Nay, people enjoy it.

It would be easy to let TMZ slide as the slumlords of celebrity entertainment industry. It is usually within its legal rights and, apart from not giving a damn who it hurts or destroys, it can be commended for its dogged determination to sniff out every detail about what Brad Pitt wore to dinner Friday night. What’s more, it’s getting paid…and big time. So, who can blame’em, right?

Most readers of TMZ probably don’t know that it only exists because of the ownership and funding of media giant AOL/Time Warner. Indeed, the same people that give you CNN, Time Magazine, HBO, Court TV, Sports Illustrated, and the Cartoon Network give you TMZ, home of the exploitation of mental illness and pictures of celebrity’s nipple slips. If not for the backing of one of the world’s biggest media companies, some people might be able to lose their minds without having millions of people watch it happen. But, really, who can blame AOL/Time Warner, right? If there is money to be made and readers to satisfy, who cares if it helps the nation poke fun at bipolar disorder? In the long run, it’s all about profit.

The profit is there. It’s not the readers sending in contributions. It’s not subscription fees. It’s advertising and lots of it. Take a peek at just a couple screen shots from this week’s coverage.

If you don’t care to click through to see the larger images, what you’re looking at there is McDonald’s sponsorship of the announcement that Britney Spears has been declared “Gravely Disabled.” The one below that is Circuit City’s sponsorship of TMZ’s “Nip Slip” page, an entire section dedicated to nipples that have somehow made their way out of celebrity’s shirts.

Here should begin a long lament about the downfall of American culture. Here should start the waxing nostalgic about a time when human decency rose above corporate profits. Here should be the part where we ask “At what point did exploitation and prurience become the stuff of corporate sponsorship by the likes of Ronald McDonald?”

Indeed, it should be the point we ask that. However, it likely won’t do any good, if there is any good to be done in the first place. Ronald McDonald probably thinks he is being a good corporate citizen by not having TMZ TV streaming in all locations. If McDonald’s can sell a McRib because you wanted another look at Britney Spears going nuts, then all the better. The good thing about it is that we won’t have to blink when pictures of Britney Spears’ suicide appear on Circuit City TVs and are accompanied by a Happy Meal toy.

This is not a defense of Britney Spears. It’s a defense of human decency.

What makes schadenfreude the lowest form of humor is its complete lack of effort and creativity. America’s schadenfreude artists wait for someone else to create something and then eagerly dissect it for a cheap laugh and a feeling of personal or corporate worth. It’s such an easy buck that an entire industry has built itself on making the world’s lamest of spirits feel better about themselves.

Perhaps the worst thing born from this cultural enlightenment is the ability to become famous through failure. One only need watch American Idol to see that failure is a quicker road to fame than talent. The shortsighted fail to see their fame will last just long enough to make them a little money and the subject of ridicule for the next several years. After that, it’s back to failing on a smaller scale.

Just about every major language has a way to describe schadenfreude, that funny little word with no English equivalent. Similarly, just about every major language has a way to say “Schadenfreude is the greatest joy.”

In every culture but our own, that final quote is meant to be ironic.

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Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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9 Responses

  1. Brad,
    I really enjoyed this post.

  2. Great post, well crafted! I can’t help but think that if the founding fathers were able to see all that was being perpetrated in the name of Freedom of Speech/Press, even they would have said “Ah c’mon WTF!”



  3. I don’t have a problem with the reporting of it. When she put herself in the public spotlight she opened herself up to this kind of examination. She took what there was to take (her net worth is over $100 million) and that kind of thing doesn’t come for free.

    What I do have a problem with is the dishonest people who report and obsess over the details and pretend to be doing it “because they care.” When they say “we hope she gets the help she needs,” they are completely full of crap. They really hope she continues her downward spiral and deep down they hope for her eventual suicide.

    At least TMZ doesn’t lie about why they are reporting the stories, as most other outlets do. TMZ honestly says they are reporting it because people, sick as they are, want the information.

  4. Dugglebogey,
    I agree with you to a certain extent. However, having lived a good many years of my life working and playing with local news “celebrities,” I am a bit more sympathetic to Britney’s plight.

    When most people sign up for a life in the public spotlight, they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. You don’t realize how much of your life and your self you give up in order to become a success in the public eye. I can see how one might go completely bat shit crazy.

    Local news people can’t even go to the grocery store or to the restroom without people expecting them to be “on,” and most them are not even A-list celebrities. People feel like they can say anything they want to say to you (I have a friend who’s been told she looks much fatter in person than on TV) or do anything they want to you, because you “asked for it” by coming into their living rooms every night. It’s an insane way to live. While sometimes it’s flattering and even necessary to your continued success, it’s often completely exhausting. It makes you paranoid, always looking over your shoulder to see who’s watching.

    While I’m not going to feel entirely sorry for everyone in the public eye, I will say it’s very unfair how the American public loves to build people up, but not nearly as much as it loves to tear people down. That’s just fucking sick.

  5. Anonymous Ken says:

    Just another gaper’s block on the Internet Super Highway.

    If something bad is happening, we only welcome it and view the results when it is to the other person.

  6. This is actually very untrue. When horrible things happen to people that we loved or respected for important achievement, it is usually not so pronounced. When their fame is based on sex and fluff, people do not hold back.

    I realize that many celebrities had no idea what they were getting into when they decided to try to become famous, but that’s really no excuse. You can’t expect something that rewards you with hundreds of millions of dollars to come with zero cost. That’s just not how the world works.

    Sorry to hijack your comments Otis.

  7. Isn’t this something that we bring on ourselves? To an extent, this country hates success stories. Sure we like applaud people on their rise to the top but then the envy and the jealousy set in. When that success turns to failure, people revel in it.

    Look at the Super Bowl. Too many people hate the Patriots because they have won, and they would love to see them lose just so they don’t have the perfect season. Whether they get there or not, we shouldn’t be ready to create t-shirts expounding their defeat. Likewise, every football fan should give them credit if they win.

    Why can’t we just appreciate someone working hard and making it in life without waiting for the fall?

  8. Can I get an Amen? Great post, Otis.

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