TABLOIDED: The Death of Heath Ledger
When the news of Heath Ledger’s drug overdose death broke yesterday afternoon, my thoughts quickly turned to, “How are the tabs going to cover this?” There were two ways it could go: mournful and tragic or lurid and lascivious. Both angles were covered in the papers this morning. This is going to be an interesting story to watch unfold because it has so many tabloid-worthy aspects: celebrity, drugs, a local angle and a life cut short. The Post had nine writers on the story; the Daily News had 15.
The Post chose a generic “DEATH IN SOHO” banner headline with a 2006 picture of Ledger and ex-fiancée Michelle Williams and a generic subhead noting “Heath Ledger ODs on pills.” The News, meanwhile, went the more sensationalist route, including an inset photo of the star’s body as it was wheeled out of the Soho apartment building and noting that Ledger was nude when he was found. (The main photo is a promo shot from Brokeback Mountain, the film that cemented Ledger’s career as a serious actor.) The Post waited until page 2 to divulge that detail. Of course, the paper still needs to shock, so it classes up its coverage with some photos of Ledger hanging from a noose, which were from a film the star was working on in London. It brought to mind the front page of the tabloid from when Kurt Cobain shot himself, which featured a promo photo of the Nirvana frontman with a gun in his mouth.
Film scholar Richard Dyer argues in his 1986 book Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society that one way in which stars appeal to us is through the concept of “really:” what celebrities are like in their private lives. Think of any of those “Stars, they’re just like us” paparazzi photos you see in the tabloids of Jessica Alba pumping gas or Reese Witherspoon grocery shopping. The irony of this striving to find the “authentic” person behind the celebrity is that it often plays out in the public eye and is just a media construction.
Both the Post and the Daily News have perfect examples of this phenomenon with articles on how Ledger lived a quiet, idyllic life in Brooklyn with Williams and their daughter Matilda. Both of these stories are peppered with quotes from people who work at various Boerum Hill establishments that Ledger frequented. The sources talk about how down-to-earth and gentlemanly the actor was. But Ledger hadn’t been living in Brooklyn the past few months, so these tributes still contributed to a paradoxical public image as a private person and a general “low-key” myth about the actor. The “low-key Brooklyn existence” will be a constant in the narrative of Ledger’s life and death, despite the fact he perished in his home in Manhattan.
In terms of sheer information, the Post wins out. Their coverage was complete with identifying and featuring photos of the maid and masseuse who found the actor unconscious and dialed 911. The caption under the picture of Theresa Solomon and Diane Lee is thoroughly inappropriate, declaring the women “leading ladies.”
Lurid and inappropriate isn’t just for celebrities; in today’s papers, hockey moms and police officers are sensationalized as well. The Post claims an “exclusive” on a female informant who alleges that Brooklyn narcotics officer Jerry Bowens slept with her. However, the Daily News also has the story (as they “exclusively” did yesterday); the Post has an interview with the informant.
Both tabs also examine the case of Beth Modica, a Rockland County hockey mom accused of having sex with some of her son’s underage friends and hosting booze and pot parties. Modica was indicted on 35 counts, including statutory rape, sex abuse and endangering children. The irony of this story is that Modica is the wife of the Spring Valley police chief. The News stuck with the AP’s coverage of the story, but the Post had two reporters working it.
Odds and Ends Andrea Peyser continues to squeeze the “Weekend at Bernie’s” story for column fodder as she covers the burial of Virgilio Cintron.
The Post seems to think that the Patriots now are known as the *s. Yes, it’s clever to put an asterisks in the stats, but at least name the team in your coverage. You’d think we were reading the Boston Herald with all the Tom Brady coverage they’ve got in the paper today.
Finally, we need a “happy” story to balance out today’s death and scandal. The Daily News brings us the story of Gracie Mae, a 10-month-old tabby cat from Florida who stowed away in her owner’s luggage and wound up on a flight to Dallas. Despite the subzero temperatures in the cargo hold and going home with the wrong person (a stranger mistakenly grabbed the suitcase at baggage claim), Gracie Mae survived.
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