Charlie Sheen & AFL girl: is it time to look away?

The media has been copping a beating over its handling of the public meltdown of Charlie Sheen and the extra-curricular activities of the AFL schoolgirl. While the mainstream media undoubtedly played a part in fanning the flames, is it really to blame?

As the protagonists in these huge stories -Charlie Sheen and the AFL schoolgirl – turn the volume up to 11 on their public exposure, many people have blamed the media. ‘Turn away’ they say. ‘Shame on you’ they say. ‘Stop giving them oxygen’ they say.

But is it the responsibility of the media to be the moral gatekeepers of what we should and shouldn’t know about? Is it their responsibility to diagnose supposed ‘mental illness’ and on that basis, stop reporting on certain stories?

And with social media and youtube giving everyone the ability to by-pass the media altogether and communicate whatever toxic or mixed-up message they want directly to a willing audience, are these calls for the media to ‘STOP’ just redundant?

We’ve been debating this all week in the Mamamia office. Perhaps you have been too.

Mamamia News Editor Rick Morton attempted to thrash out some of the answers to the role of media in these and other big stories and discovered a minefield. He writes:

Charlie Sheen is exploding. Not literally. But something in his very recent history just went ‘pop’ and there were little bits of Charlie Sheen everywhere we looked. They’re still everywhere. In the newspapers. On the television. On YouTube. On Twitter. There was a Sheen meme here and a Sheen meme there. It was erratic. It was fast.

His spectacular train wreck of a life has become public fodder. Initially because the media reported on it. But then he came back. For more. And then some more. When that wasn’t enough he started production of his own show, Sheen Corner, which he streamed live on the Internet to viewers who were joining at a rate of hundreds per second. They were the Roman spectators in a bloodsport Coliseum and they wanted a spectacular malfunction on behalf of Sheen. They were baying for blood. They wanted to watch an implosion or, at the very least, something ‘funny’.

But Charlie wanted them to watch. He was complicit in the entertainment. We don’t know if he is mentally ill. We don’t. He may be. He may not be. Rocker Rick James was understating it when he said that cocaine is a hell of a drug.

It was the media’s fault. Or was it?

In the game of society Cluedo the culprit is a popular one and the answers are usually the same. It was The Media. In the billiard room. With a candlestick and 50cm of newspaper columns. The Media is this big, hulking conglomerate of all the words and all the pictures and all the sound across the world and collectively it is easy to assign blame to this monstrosity of communication.


But what exactly is the role of the media, and does it matter as much any more when jesters like Charlie Sheen can circuit break their influence with social media like Twitter, YouTube and all the rest? He broke the world record for snaring those Twitter followers – one million in under 24 hours – which is a built-in, easy-to-access audience that doesn’t even require the brokering of the mainstream media.

There has been a lot of talk out there in the chat-o-sphere about whether the mainstream media should just walk away. Why focus on Charlie Sheen? But the point has to be made, aren’t they just irrelevant in this instance? Or is that glossing over their role too much and making excuses for poor judgment?

The accusation of abdication of duty scarcely takes into account the almost chicken-and-egg like situation that is what the media chooses to publish and the audience for which they are publishing. Do people read what they are given or do they demand what they want to read? In Roman times the Coliseum was built by the rulers for the people. But it was the people who happily joined the elite baying for blood as somebody was eaten by a tiger.

I used to be a tabloid journalist. I used to have this debate all the time and I found it incredibly hard to justify. I still can’t. I went to death knocks, I staked out waiting for Kate Hudson and Owen Wilson. I snuck into the apartment complex of an accused terrorist. I’m not proud of any of this. But I did it. I did it because my employer asked me to and because they made money selling the newspaper this way. They made money because people bought it and read my stuff.

Charlie Sheen’s turn is still happening but the case differs from Britney Spears who, from all accounts, was legitimately mentally ill and shying away from the spotlight. We don’t know if it was her that tipped off the paparazzi when she was out, but it may well have been a coterie of hangers-on who used and abused a fragile mind in a dark state. And the media was there.

The media hounded Britney.

There’s a distinction. Spears didn’t want the publicity then and there and currently Sheen does. Nobody is forcing him to hold court on uStream but he is, replete with copious references to winning and tiger blood and his harem of buxom beauties.

It’s bizarre, certainly, it’s unpalatable, yes. But if the media turns away will it really stop?

Nobody is forcing us to watch Sheen’s inexplicable rants and self-destruction. Frankly, at the end of the day, media outlets are guided by profits. If drug addled celebrities on the front pages didn’t sell, they wouldn’t be there. So is the problem us? Just who is egging on who here?

Take the case of the AFL school girl and the 60 Minute interview. Opposition was fierce that the network would even entertain the thought of interviewing the girl. No less paying for it! But, to play the devil’s advocate, isn’t the girl complicit in this too?

At what point does one stop being a vulnerable child and begin being complicit in the media sideshow? Whatever we can say about her intentions, she kept the story alive. With lies, which she admitted, with her own uStream shows and a hefty Twitter audience herself.

Lindsay Lohan is another pap favourite.

If 60 Minutes had decided not to go ahead with the interview, indeed any of the other mainstream media, would the girl really have gone away or would she have stepped up her designs for the spotlight?

These aren’t statements of fact. They are admissions of floundering in a complex chicken vs the egg philosophical conundrum.

Influence works both ways with media and an audience.

We don’t have the answers and it’s not quite so cut and dried as finding a scapegoat and being done with it.

What do you think? Can blame be shouldered by any one party alone?

Just what is the responsibility of the media in this day and age?