Those seeking an illustration of the media food chain's numerous hypocrisies need look no further than the Hugh Grant affair. As you doubtless know, Grant was arrested last week in Hollywood for "public lewdness" with a prostitute in the back seat of a car.
The ironies were irresistible: here was a dashing Englishman being groomed as the next Cary Grant, the star of the top-grossing foreign-produced feature of all time, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the lover of Estee Lauder model Elizabeth Hurley, widely considered one of the most beautiful women alive.
So what was he doing getting his dolphin waxed in the back seat of a car? And why did he patronize a streetwalker when he could have afforded a less skanky sexual servant? And why did he do the deed in public when he was on a PR junket promoting his new movie, Nine Months, staying alone in a nice, studio-comped hotel suite that could easily have been used as a swing-in' love pad?
Jeez, these questions are salacious. But don't you just love pondering them anyway? And why not? After all, everybody loves learning that the rich and famous are as weak-willed and stupid as the rest of us.
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The New York Post knew how to play the story: on the cover, with a giant headline screaming, "Hugh's Sorry Now!" So did USA Today, which ran the story on the front page of its lifestyle section with the caption: "Grant: The Englishman Who Went up a Hill But Came Down in Handcuffs." But elsewhere in the mainstream media, coy superiority reigned. The New York Times, which would never run a story about a cute male star caught with a hooker, ran the story anyway--only it was pathetically disguised as a lofty thinkpiece about how other news sources handled the episode. Newsday ran the basic, titillating info, but felt compelled to include quotes from a psychologist on the male urge to conquer.
Rush Limbaugh, of all people, actually managed to say something intelligent about Grant's misadventure, putting the aforementioned psychologist's comments onscreen and reading them with the exaggerated aloofness of Steve Allen reciting the lyrics to "Hound Dog." Then he pointed out something too many journalists and editors wouldn't admit: this story wasn't a metaphor for the war between men and women. It was a grotesquely amusing gossip item.
Which illustrates one of the pervasive problems of mainstream news reporting: the tendency to seek out the cosmic in everything. A critic of Freud's theorizing once pointed out that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The same goes for a trick.
--Matt Zoller Seitz (firstname.lastname@example.org)