Leave it to Bieber’ pre-empts real news

October 25, 2010

The concept of self-parody is clearly lost on Vancouver Sun Managing Editor Kirk LaPointe. I called him recently to find out what thinking lay behind the decision to run eight (!) feature stories on Justin Bieber à propos his Oct. 19 concert. Here’s what he said to me:

“Look, I’m not going to give you an answer because that kind of question could harm the paper’s reputation.” Did I hear that right? B.C.’s newspaper of record spends eight editions fawning over a 16-year-old poptart, and LaPointe thinks that explaining the decision would adversely affect the Sun’s reputation. Sorry, Kirk, but it’s a bit late in the game to start caring about the Sun’s reputation. Besides, search parties are still out.

It gets better. After refusing comment, LaPointe tells me to call editrix-in-chief Patricia Graham. “She’ll talk to you; she should still be in the office,” he said. I proceed to call Graham, only to learn from her secretary that she’s out of town and wouldn’t be back for days. At any rate, she said Graham had e-mailed my message to LaPointe, and that it was up to him to answer my questions.

I later found out that LaPointe’s secretary, for some reason, gave my original message to Graham, who then passed the buck to LaPointe. This bit of news raises the question of why LaPointe said Graham would talk to me, much less be in her office.

LaPointe’s reaction was dismissive and disrespectful. Journalist or not, I deserved an answer to a simple question because editors, at least in theory, are supposed to be accountable to their readers. Clearly somebody thought Bieber deserved to be treated better than a head of state, and presumably that person (or persons) had good reason. I just wanted to know what it was.

At least Graham’s secretary bothered to throw out the lame it’s-what-our-readers-want line. LaPointe couldn’t be bothered to do even that. In the absence of any informed comment, I am left to surmise that LaPointe knew the Bieber overkill was conspicuously embarrassing and journalistically indefensible, but couldn’t bring himself to say so. At any rate, LaPointe has since left the Sun to become the ombudsman at the CBC.

For the record, here are the stories I wanted LaPointe to explain:

Operation: “Bieber Fever”
Tuesday, Oct. 12
Wednesday, Oct. 13
Thursday, Oct. 14
Friday, Oct. 15
Saturday, Oct. 16
Monday, Oct. 18
Tuesday, Oct. 19
Wednesday, Oct. 20
The famous Bieber ’do
The business of Bieber
Child stars now and then
The sociology of rock stars
Justin Bieber’s autobiography
The teen star’s digital world
Local fans prepare for the big day
Justin Bieber concert review

Cinephiles who caught François Marchand’s Oct. 20 concert review might have noticed more than a passing similarity to the fawning boilerplate churned out to promote the singing career of “Susan Alexander” in Citizen Kane.

From the scope of “Operation: Bieber Fever” one might get the mistaken idea that Bieber is unique and especially talented. Wrong on both counts. Like the fictional Susan Alexander, Bieber owes his fame to a relentless publicity machine, and like Alexander is much less of a singer than the publicity would have us believe. One major difference, though, is that Bieber is genuinely popular, if only among lovesick teenaged girls.

bobby sherman justin bieber
Bobby Sherman 1960s–’70s
Justin Bieber
The best that can be said for Bieber is that he’s an immature version of Bobby Sherman, a major teen idol of the 1960s and ’70s. Sherman rocketed to the top of the music charts in his mid-20s, but his popularity faded after about five years as newer, younger pop stars came up. Bieber is only 16. I wonder how long it’ll be before his act gets old he ends up as music industry roadkill. Maybe Britney Spears will offer counselling.

But the issue here is not Justin Bieber and whether or not he’s a good singer. The issue is how The Vancouver Sun used Bieber to pump out eight days’ worth of incessant, in-your-face cheerleading, all of which served to further the trivialization of news and the dumbing-down of political discourse.

This policy of intellectual decapitation, “Raze a Reader,” is a major reason why our democracy is slipping into a police state. By larding the paper with infotainment, celebrity worship and soft features, the Sun ensures that readers remain distracted and amused, and thus less likely to notice the absence of substantive reporting.

Justin’s publicity corps—a sample
Bieber’s publicity machine
Finally, the catchphrase “Bieber Fever,” parroted by all media, is also unintentionally self-parodic. It sounds like a failed rhyme, and that might lead people to associate it with the true rhyme “Beaver Fever,” which has nothing to do with hyperenthusiasm for beavers. Also known as giardiasis, beaver fever is a water-borne disease that causes an inflammation of the small intestine and diarrhea.

In the rush to gush, I wonder if any editor thought about the unfortunate association of Bieber Fever with something that can make you physically sick. Then again, it doesn’t appear that any thinking was involved.