Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Beiber and the Damage Done

As an unrepentant info junkie, I’m on Google News a lot.  With the media’s obsession with celebrities, certain names usually come up, such as Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, and now Justin Beiber.  And as an info junkie, I’ll casually browse through whatever is there.

I’ve long since passed the age when certain entertainers raise my ire, although in my younger days, the likes of the New Kids on the Block and the Spice Girls would have me plugging my ears and leaving the room. Nowadays, I’ve gotten pretty ambivalent to the latest pop sensations, although I do lament only hearing a small segment of Justin Beiber’s “One Time” in a video promo and having it stuck in my head ever since.  Regardless, it’s not worth the energy to get worked up over or blogging about, even more so since I’m well past the age when Rolling Stone was relevant.

I will get worked up about this month’s Rolling Stone interview with “the Beib,” however.  In the interview, the 16 year old pop star is asked questions regarding politics (loves Canadian healthcare, jokingly says that America is evil), sex (believes that love should preclude sex, fair enough), and rape and abortion.

Given the incendiary nature of the topic when spoken about by anyone of note, the top news sites calling out the fact that Beiber admitted to being against abortion, even in the cases of sexual assault...that is, in the headlines, completely stripping away any context.

Hoo-boy. Why not ask a 16-year old born-and-raised Christian celebrity his opinion on same-sex unions while you’re at it? Oh wait, they did. 

The public has great interest in the rise of a celebrity, especially when they come from very humble roots, such as the case with Beiber, who got his start on YouTube and was "discovered." Unfortunately, the public has greater interest in the celebrity's fall, which is much greater when a celebrity has a generally "clean" image. This is not so much as a defense of a young pop star as it's more of an indictment of the media, most of whom have chosen to take an incomplete quote as published and use it out of context.  It's not even the first time. 

Nearer towards the end of the Beatles' existence as a band, John Lennon was asked an interview question about the relevance of religion in young people's lives.  His response, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."

When published in the Evening Standard, no one said anything.  When a fan magazine Playbook got a hold of it and only published a part of it on the cover, that's when the protests started, complete with burnings of Beatles merchandise.

That was almost 50 years ago.  It seems that interviewers for non-tabloid publications have (de-)evolved towards using ambush type questions to get a response, in this case, asking a young pop idol his views on homosexuality and abortion.  When indicating his pro-life stance, the interviewer pressed further, asking if it's even in the case of sexual assault.

The exact quote: "Um. Well, I think that's really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don't know how that would be a reason. I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that." When published, an "editorial error" managed to remove the second sentence, "I don't know how that would be a reason."  

Within context and thinking from a cool head, it's a fairly neutral statement, but if it's reduced to a headline like "Justin Beiber says you got raped for a reason, ladies", it's going to trigger knee-jerk reactions and protests.  And, it's quite possible that as a guy that has never had to go through the moral dilemma of undergoing an abortion following a sexual assault, I'm not going to have the same incendiary response as someone who has.

How incendiary? While the pro-choice camp hasn’t gone as far as the pro-life camp (eg: pro-life extremists shooting abortion providers), the one incident that sticks out in my head was when there was a pro-life display that was put up in a public area at UBC in 1999, and was promptly vandalized by a group of pro-choice activists.  Without passing judgment, do a woman’s reproductive rights trump freedom of expression?  Is a display showing images of aborted fetuses offensive enough that it is a viable threat to laws protecting reproductive rights, and should therefore be destroyed, as it would fall into the same category as slander or libel?  I can’t answer that.

This also begs the question: why was a minor even asked such a question? While he's hardly a blank slate and presumably aware enough to know when it's something he has little authority to comment on (as he said, he "wouldn't t be able to judge that"), he hardly has the life experience or knowledge to weigh in on a controversial topic that can't be viewed in black and white terms.  Apparently, his media handler and publicist were nowhere to be found when those questions were asked, as they would’ve realized what effects such quotes would have, and that they would definitely be taken out of context.

Even the phrase, “It's everyone's own decision to do that. It doesn't affect me and shouldn't affect anyone else” in regards to homosexuality should have been taken as neutral.  But someone with enough media power will be offended by it to comment and reinterpret it as “Justin Beiber says being gay is a choice.”  Of course, one would think that the important words were the part about “doesn’t affect me and shouldn’t affect anyone else.”

Rolling Stone editor Vanessa Grigoriadis defended the line of questioning, tweeting, “A 16 year old kid, to be 17 in a couple weeks, who has control over a large population should be asked all questions."  Fair enough.  But, given that most celebrities in the media will have handlers and media control to filter any sort of controversial questions, it comes across as predatory, even more so considering that he's only 16, and his handlers weren't nearby when those questions were asked. 

I'll admit.  When I was 16, I leaned towards the pro-life camp.  I was part of the Catholic school system and with constant bombardment of pro-life rhetoric on a regular basis, there isn't a lot of room for any other point of view, especially at that age.  After a few years in college, my view softened considerably.  But most importantly, I realize that I will never fully understand the topic fully, so I know enough not to make black and white statements like "abortion is murder" or "reproductive rights trump all".  To an extent, Beiber probably understands it too, given his qualifying statements.

Under the circumstances, Beiber probably answered the questions the best he could without media coaching, although the questions shouldn't have even been asked in the first place, at least not without the presence of his media handlers.  Because in the meantime, a character was just assassinated.

No, I don't like the music, and if I can finally get "One More Time" unstuck from my head, I would actually be a lot happier.  And yes, freedom of the press is important.  But at what point does that breach journalistic ethics?

While I'm at it...we have about 48 hours to "save Canadian journalism."

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