Why Britney Spears’ bare bottom is a good thing

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

Yesterday, I met a man who bemoaned the state of US media, and its obsessive focus on the minutia of celebrity lies and other distractions.

Or at least I think he did — I launched into my speech without letting him finish making his point.

You see, he reminded me of a day back in grad school. I was studying Central Asian languages — Uzbek, Tajik, Farsi — and area culture and history at Indiana University, and one of our professors was an anthropologist. He explained that anthropology was the science of “studying down.” Powerful people — governments, corporations, universities — send researchers around to study the powerless — tribesmen living in remote villages, inner city youths, their own employees.

Then the powerful use the information they gain to become more powerful. This is, apparently, an ethnical problem for some anthropologists.

I suddenly had a realization — there is one profession that studies up. Where poor people collect pennies and nickels and pay for researchers to go study the habits of the rich and powerful. That profession is journalism. (I immediately quit grad school and went off to Detroit to fill in as UPI’s bureau chief there, back when UPI was still a going concern.)

Most of us remember those National Geographic photo spreads of naked natives in Africa and South America. Well, now those naked natives can log on to the Internet at their local Web cafes and see pictures of us naked. And by us, I mean Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and the whole gang.

What’s not to like about that?

Powerless people want to know things about the powerful. Yes, some want to know useful, serious, practical stuff — where do they invest their money? How do they make decisions? That sort of thing. This is where the Wall Street Journals and BusinessWeeks come in, and a fine job they do.

But other people would prefer to infiltrate the powerful elite by social climbing. They want to know who the powerful hang out with. Where they socialize. What they wear. Not everybody is going to act on this information by getting the right clothes, hair and accessories and going out and bagging a movie star — but we can all dream about it. And all those tabloid magazines — the People and US and and all the rest — give us the tools, the knowledge we need, should we ever decide to do it.

And those of us in the lifestyle business — the makers of handbags and jewelry, for example — can learn how to market them, where to sell them, and how to get celebrities to wear them.

Information is power. The more powerless people can learn about those in power, the more they can level the playing field. Economically. And socially.

And that can’t be a bad thing.

And if the price we pay is being forced — by the media, of course, and purely for research purposes — to click on the link to Britney’s photos and Paris’ video, well that’s the price we have to pay for informational equality. I, for one, am willing to sacrifice my eyeballs. Yes, by buying US and People, and economically supporting the paparazzi, I am striking a blow for the disenfranchized everywhere.

Yes, the rich and powerful can no longer live their lives of luxury in secret, manipulating the world behind the scenes. The photographers and the snoops are there in force, ferreting out all the secrets, both trivial and important.

And more power to them.

Signing off in Shanghai,

Maria