Please Kill Fee Me: The Scary Rise of Celebrity Journalism Dilettantes

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Newspapers and magazines are closing; the ones that remain grow thinner by the week as if somehow cursed; freelance budgets are being slashed and staffers accustomed to taking it easy are being forced to write like their livelihoods depend on it. (Hint: They do.) The only thing worse than losing one of the few, cramped spots in a magazine’s well is losing it to a celebrity—you know, the kind of person who thinks it’s fun to bang out a story while nibbling Cornichons from an Endeavor gift basket in their trailer or on their iPhone from the limo on the way to the Golden Globes.

Take the new issue of Rolling Stone, which sports a cover of Lil Wayne sure to cause nightmares in the late life miracle babies of the magazine’s aging Boomer readers. Should you make it past that cover—but go boldly or he’ll open his eyes like the Sphinx Gate from The Neverending Story and you shall perish—you’ll find an eleven page story (fourteen if you include three full pages of photos) about Kris Kristofferson by actor-director-author Ethan Hawke, who went from RS cover boy to contributor in 14 short years.

What’s amazing about the piece is that it’s… actually kind of amazing. Mr. Hawke, who wrote the novels The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday, does a pretty good job capturing Mr. Kristofferson in “The Last Outlaw Poet” (which is not online, but you can enjoy its accompanying “online exclusive” playlist), whom he describes as “cut from a thicker, more intricate cloth than most celebrities today.”

Mr. Hawke continues:

Imagine if Brad Pitt had also written a Number One single for someone like Amy Winehouse, was considered among the finest songwriters of his generation, had been a Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, a professional helicopter pilot—and was as politically outspoken as Sean Penn. That’s what a motherfuckin’ badass Kris Kristofferson was in 1979.

While you contemplate that, let’s take a look at Messrs. Pitt and Penn, since, as coincidence would have it, both of them have been playing journalist lately, too.

In September, Mr. Pitt wrote a short article for Vanity Fair about Human Rights Watch. (The article was headlined Thunder on the Rights.) Mr. Pitt also wrote his own Esquire profile in 2006. (Talk about cutting out the middle man.) When not writing, Mr. Pitt is snapping pictures, as he did for the cover of W‘s ‘Art Issue’ in November 2008. That cover featured a very intimate photo of Mr. Pitt’s partner, Angelina Jolie, breast-feeding. Now that’s what we call access!

Mr. Penn had the December 15th cover story of The Nation, which had him interviewing Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro. He’s also filed reports from Iraq and Iran for The San Francisco Chronicle. Mr. Penn’s Nation story was particularly annoying to The New Yorker‘s George Packer, who asked in December on his ‘Interesting Times’ blog:

Why does someone like Penn think he can do this job, which isn’t his job? Perhaps because he can write down and relay the words of famous people to whom his own fame gives him access, and because certain thoughts pass through his mind while he’s writing them down. Penn’s moonlighting shows a kind of contempt for journalism, which turns out to be rather difficult to do well.

Of course, magazines have always called upon celebrities to write tributes to other celebrities using their own fame to gain access. But unlike the editors of Interview setting up a conference call between, say, Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken and editing together the transcript (which is how we presume most of these things are done), or The New York Times Magazine asking Catherine Keener to say a few nice words in print about Kat Denning, Mr. Hawke’s profile represents the handing over of a significant chunk of editorial real estate that might’ve otherwise been occupied by the work of—what were those people called back when the existed?—a journalist. (Do we even need to mention all the celebrities and demi-celebrities blogging on The Huffington Post—that means you, John Cusack!—taking away space from the Mayhill Fowlers of the world?)

Which is not to say Mr. Hawke does a bad job. Far from it. That’s what’s so scary about the rise of the celebrity journalism dilettantes. For a working hack—that word is used here without judgment—it’s hard enough to get a pitch accepted by an editor (much less an 11-page evergreen on a 72-year-old who’s in not in the Jonas Brothers). But now you gotta compete with writers editors think are cooler, better connected, and who don’t even need the money.

This situation may get worse before it gets better. In an article from this weekend’s New York Times ‘Arts & Leisure’ section about the Hollywood remake of the BBC journalism-themed thriller State of Play, Chip McGrath quoted the film’s director, Kevin McDonald saying this about star Russell Crowe:

‘The great thing about Russell is that he’s so unvain. I explained to him that this guy is a bit of a schlub, a bit of a loser, he lives in the kind of apartment where you would never have people over, and Russell got that right away.’

‘The interesting thing,’ he added, ‘is that Russell had such contempt for the press to begin with. He hates reporters. It took him a while to acknowledge that there could be such a thing as journalists who were idealistic and incorruptible.’

Coming soon, Russell Crowe, ace reporter? What’s a real writer to do? Sign up for The Actors Studio?

Please Kill Fee Me: The Scary Rise of Celebrity Journalism Dilettantes