Being a card-carrying* member of the lame-stream media, I am often forced to accept the ease with which the average consumer can — and loves to — pillory the current state of news. In 2014, finding an example of lazy, pandering or simply nonexistent journalism is as easy as turning on the television, or daring to type the word “cat” into a Google image search. And while there’s still a great deal of good work out there — for those so inclined to spend more time looking for it than bemoaning its alleged absence — it’s difficult to ignore that the ever-blurring line between information and entertainment has resulted in an America where MSNBC interrupts a congresswoman to report on breaking Bieber news.
*Still waiting for card.
As an emblem of The Problem With Media, Justin Bieber is tailor-made. He’s young, attractive and famous to a degree that both fascinates and disgusts us, revealing as it does some fundamental human tendency toward idolatry. As of late, Bieber has also proven himself a perfect storm of wealth and immaturity, the kind of person who gets his mansion raided by police because he egged his neighbor’s mansion. Without getting all intense about the state of journalism, it’s fair to say that Bieber is a car crash and America loves rubbernecking.
But here’s a fun fact: Justin Bieber will be one of more than a million people arrested this year for driving under the influence, of whom I estimate 437,566 will be celebrities. As much as that glassy-eyed mugshot demands to be snarked upon, we can’t neglect to level criticism where it is morally due: When did the DUI become NBD?
Ignoring for the moment TMZ’s frantic investigation of Bieber’s exact blood-alcohol content, it’s my understanding that one can’t throw a latte in LA without hitting a celebrity — or “celebrity” — busted for driving drunk. In 2013, DMX, Dina Lohan, Lamar Odom, and Reese Witherspoon['s husband] all faced DUIs. Carmelo Anthony — who just set a Knicks scoring record — drove drunk in 2008, as did Charles Barkley and Richie Sambora. Other drunk drivers of yore include Mike Tyson, Randy Travis, Sally Struthers, Kiefer Sutherland (twice), Shia Labeouf, Amanda Bynes, and Mel Gibson. I’m beginning to doubt Rob Ford has ever not driven drunk.
It’s true that the entire premise of Biebmageddon was the pop star’s arrest, i.e. the legal consequences for breaking the law. And when citing drunk-driving arrests, I suppose arrests is the operative word. But celebrity arrests have a way of not sticking, and even the sticky ones don’t resurrect the 10,000 people killed each year in car accidents where the driver was above the legal alcohol limit.
The truth is that our tone in discussing drunk driving sometimes belies the seriousness of the topic: An average of 1 alcohol-impaired-driving fatality occurred every 51 minutes in 2012. Even in a world as media-saturated as ours, you can’t reduce a fatal trend to mug-shot slideshows and SEO-friendly topic pages without sacrificing some sensitivity to the fact that when people drive under the influence, other people die. And taking this Biebscapade as an opportunity to rail on the media instead of the perpetrator implies a tacit approval of The Way One Lives If One Is Justin Bieber. At least take a moment to spread your loathing equally.
As causes of death go, drunk driving is a drop in the bucket when stacked up against grim reapers like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Statistically, it’s probably more detrimental to humanity to eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger or buy a pair of Nikes than it is to climb behind the wheel after five beers. But our reaction to drunk driving has to take into account the carelessness that engenders the crime. Eliminating every single injury or fatality caused by alcohol-impaired driving doesn’t require an undiscovered medical cure, or a rethink of global manufacturing standards. It literally just requires you, when drinking, to not drive. That someone with as many handlers as Bieber would fail to meet this basic requirement is beyond ridiculous.
I’m with you, outraged America. I can’t get behind legitimate news outlets peddling Bieber gossip as top-of-the-hour headlines either. But it’s worth remembering that even nonsense has the capacity to provoke a bigger conversation – in this case about privilege, narcissism, fame, and the gall it takes to drive fucked up and then peacock your way through your own arrest. Or at the very least, a conversation about how insanely absurdly maddeningly easy it is to not drink and drive.