Celebrity journalists are news workers who become prominent or famous in their own right and thus objects of media attention. Journalists are a means of chronicling fame and infamy, and stars and leaders depend on journalism to maintain a public profile. Under economic pressures, media industries have tended to associate public personalities with their chroniclers. Repeated contact with the renowned has led journalists to become closely identified with those whose stories they report, resulting in their being elevated to celebrity status themselves and joining the A-list of popular culture celebrities from film, television, and music.
Celebrity, which emerged from historical patterns of fame, is a modern phenomenon that arose along with democracy and capitalism. Unlike other forms of influence and power, it is a populist phenomenon. Celebrities come from the people, and their power depends on an affective connection with an audience. Over the past two centuries, the reach of personal reputation has expanded through the expansion of media forms. As media and entertainment industries emerge, they manufacture celebrity as a branded commodity, and the commodification of personality gives expression to individuality as part of consumer and democratic ideologies. In these economic and political cultures, celebrities exemplify hyper-individuality.
Journalism and celebrity have parallel and intertwined histories. Journalistic practice developed a populist strain particularly in the late nineteenth century, when journalists championed popular causes and challenged the powerful. Journalists emerged as personalities slowly. Although some editors became prominent, early reporters remained either anonymous scavengers supplying news items or pseudonymous correspondents supplying commentary. In the twentieth century, the coverage of celebrities became one route to journalism celebrity. For example, Walter Winchell became known in the US after inventing the celebrity gossip column.
Newspaper journalism generally maintained the tradition of reporter anonymity well into the twentieth century. Bylines emerged in the 1920s, but mostly for columns and commentary on the inside pages. Front-page stories generally did not include reporter names, but hierarchies did exist within newsrooms. Senior reporters became the first to win bylines and then their own columns. The column was the greatest encouragement to the development of celebrated journalists. Columnists adopted a distinctive voice that the paper itself could not produce in editorials, and gained a license to express opinions and, like celebrities, to proclaim their individuality.
Different journalistic traditions and different media affected how celebrity emerged. Radio, television, and film with their distinctive systems of reportage often turned journalists into celebrities. It was a US tradition that then spread internationally. By the 1930s, film newsreels in many countries made audiences familiar with reporters’ voices. Edward R. Murrow in the 1940s quickly established an iconic voice with US audiences through his CBS radio reports during the London Blitz.
From the 1970s US newspapers attached a byline to almost any story, while European cultures continued to maintain anonymous reportage for most daily coverage, a tradition that persists in some newspapers today. Bylines allow reporters to develop reputations earlier in their careers by linking their names to significant stories.
Television, perhaps more than any other medium, has promoted celebrity journalism. In some cultures, news anchors became the public face of a broadcast network. A US model for star journalists had developed by the 1960s, which Latin America and Canada in particular emulated. Network anchors represented the pinnacle of celebrity journalism, rising to that status generally by covering major news events: Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963, and later Dan Rather’s coverage of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, made them stars. Polls identified Cronkite as the most trusted US man, in contrast to the low public opinion surrounding journalists.
Elsewhere, television employed the British tradition of simple and interchangeable newsreaders, but other routes to journalism stardom did emerge via genres such as the television newsmagazine or interview programs: Ray Martin in Australia, David Frost in the United Kingdom, and others. Access to the famous makes journalists appear to be equal with their subjects. Barbara Walters established the celebrity interview as a genre in American television journalism by profiling cinema and sports stars as much as political leaders.
Morning television programs provided another avenue to fame. In the United States, the Today Show and Good Morning America have led to celebrity status for their presenters. Katie Couric rose to the position of news anchor after gaining visibility for her morning work. Television generally seems to produce more than its share of celebrity journalists, and local television news represents a training ground for would-be news stars. Exposure and familiarity are key elements of celebrity that are provided by television and radio, with their intimacy, but not by some forms of print.
The pattern of celebrity journalism currently seems in decline. Television anchors no longer operate at the center of American politics and culture. In an era of person-toperson networks, celebrity status may emerge through news blogs or websites that circulate at the margins of the mainstream media. The “Drudge Report” made Matt Drudge perhaps the first new media celebrity to emerge in the era of the Internet.
Elements of the work routines and news values of journalists may contribute to their eventual quest for celebrity. Journalists learn to pursue the scoop and the exclusive, for example, both of which tend to focus attention on the journalist as journalist. Celebrity journalism may be an inescapable element of modern democracies which reward individuals and commodify culture.
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