Commentary: The difference between celebrity and notoriety

The Miami HeraldApril 28, 2009 

Celebrity; The state or condition of being celebrated; fame; reknown

Notoriety; The quality or condition of being notorious; the state of being generally or publicly known; – commonly used in an unfavorable sense; – Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary

I define the words because apparently, some of us don't understand the difference.

By which I mean the National Broadcasting Company, which recently sought to hire former Illinois governor, Milorad "Rod" Blagojevich, to appear on its "reality" game show, I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!

The program is one of those putatively entertaining affairs where people are whisked off to some remote and hostile place and required to perform gross and humiliating stunts. The twist here is that the participants are supposed celebrities – usually faded stars and denizens of the C-List well into their 16th minute of fame, i.e., previous contestants Robin Leach, Bruce Jenner and Melissa Rivers.

Few people outside Illinois had ever heard of Blagojevich before the scandal in which he was impeached, removed from office and hit with a federal indictment charging him with corruption, including an alleged attempt to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. He is an accused crook, and his "celebrity," if you choose to call it that, proceeds from that fact.

I don't choose to call it that. What Blagojevich has isn't celebrity, but its shady cousin, notoriety. Obviously, many of us can no longer tell the difference. Otherwise, there could be no Osbourne children, Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, Nicole Richie, Kato Kaelin or Kevin Federline.

Even by the dubious standard of that motley crew, Blagojevich represents a new low in our race to the bottom. Last week, a judge denied him permission to fly to Costa Rica for the taping. But what's astonishing is that he even asked, that he did not know better.

Once upon a time, did we not expect – indeed, demand – a certain gravitas and dignity from our public officials? Even from would-be public officials and disgraced public officials? They were supposed to be serious people dealing with serious matters, and we did not want or need for them to be mere celebrities.

In that context, it was a big deal when Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In to utter a late-'60s catch phrase or Bill Clinton went on The Arsenio Hall Show to play his saxophone.

It represented a cracking of ice, a loosening of the tie; it humanized them and was welcome.

Who could have known it would lead to this bizarro world where high public officials are treated and sometimes behave as if they were no different from pop singers and movie stars, a world where President Bush's marriage and Michelle Obama's supposed feud with Oprah Winfrey share space on the tabloid cover with Jennifer Aniston's love life and Kirstie Alley's weight gain? Who could have known it would produce a world where Rod Blagojevich, under indictment, under fire and under threat of longtime residence in the graybar hotel, would think it proper to go to Costa Rica to film a TV show instead of hunkering down with his lawyers to plan a defense?

What's shocking is that no one is shocked, that it comes and goes in the chattering and nattering of the daily news and seems normal.

No, I take that back.

What's shocking is that it is normal, that this is who we now are, a people for whom disgraced public servant equals movie star equals pop singer equals notoriety equals celebrity.

Celebrity, of course, being the holy grail of human existence, the hope of which inspires us to draw breath. Some of us, at least.

Others simply marvel at a world where a Rod Blagojevich could be so easily confused with a Paris Hilton. That might be because the difference is difficult to discern.

Or, because it no longer exists.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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