Media acting as enablers with excessive coverage of “Two and a Half Men” star Charlie Sheen

Whether or not you watch “Two and a Half Men,” by now you’ve certainly heard about its troubled star, Charlie Sheen, who has been talking about the uncertain future of his hit show to anyone who will listen. And the media has been doing plenty of listening.

In the last week, Sheen has appeared on “The Alex Jones Show,” “The Dan Patrick Show,” “Loose Cannons,” NBC’s “Today” show, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.” He has texted People magazine and RadarOnline and been interviewed live on TMZ.com. And he’s not done yet. Howard Stern says his show may be next. Tuesday evening, “20/20” will air a lengthy interview with the actor.

This is important industry news in Los Angeles and legitimate business news to anyone who cares about how Hollywood makes (or loses) money. It’s obviously celebrity news.

However, the coverage has become excessive, even dangerous, I believe. And I’m not alone.

The Kansas City Star’s Aaron Barnhart wrote in a Monday column — which leads with “Enough’s enough” — that the “enablers of tabloid journalism” should intervene rather than interview.

“Charlie Sheen, according to Dr. Drew Pinsky, is having an ‘acute manic episode.’ … He is not well, and he is a danger not just to himself but to others. … It’s time for all the tabloid media to stop returning Charlie’s texts and calls. Instead, they should be using their journalism to identify the people around Charlie who can actually get him into a rehab facility — against his will if necessary — and then start badgering them to do something.”

Barnhart’s suggestion — and the coverage in general — raises questions about journalism’s responsibility to those we cover and to those who depend on us for information.

Viewers expect journalists to verify facts, as ABC News and RadarOnline did, in part, by having Sheen take a drug test to substantiate his claim that he was sober and clean. The urine test showed he was clean for the 72 hours before it was taken.

But sobriety is no guarantee of mental health. Alessandra Stanley may have suggested tongue-in-cheek that Sheen is “addicted to explaining himself on the air”; why not test the theory by going cold turkey and monitoring the withdrawal, not just for the 45-year-old actor but for those tuning in?

Tom Matlack, writing for “The Good Men Project,” wonders: “Are we addicted to Charlie Sheen?

“What upsets me so much about waking up to watch Charlie rant and rave? The man is in desperate need of help, and we as a country are getting off on watching him flounder. I have a sneaking suspicion that it has to do with how Charlie fits into the long line of male celebrities and politicians gone bad (Tiger, Spitzer, Edwards … do I need to go on?).”

Reader comments on Matlack’s story echo a 2007 Pew Research Center study that found that 87 percent of respondents believe celebrity scandals receive too much coverage. A little more than half (54 percent) of respondents blame the media for the coverage; about one-third (32 percent) blame the public. And 12 percent blame both equally.

Gordie Rogers writes in response to Matlack, “The media are the ones worshipping him, not us.” But another response shifts the blame to the audience:

“The media reports on what the public craves. The media has ratings, and in order to bolster their ratings, they go after stuff the public wants. So it’s not the media. It is us that’s lusting after Charlie Sheen and exploiting a rock-bottom man. …

“Most people probably don’t even know what’s going on in Libya. A lot of people probably slowly tuned into the idea of Egypt. But ask anyone about Charlie Sheen, and they’ll tell you because they find it vastly more interesting than Libya or Egypt or anything serious.”

“Today” show executive producer Jim Bell agrees. He told the Associated Press that the morning shows are not enabling Charlie Sheen.

“It’s a great story,” he said. “We don’t have this much interest when we have a big interview on Libya or a powerful, smart series on the brain.”

Bell may think the story is “great” because it draws audience. Or because it features the tried and true news elements: drama, conflict, timeliness, celebrity, novelty.

It also illustrates the difference between how broadcast TV and other media handle entertainment.

A Project for Excellence in Journalism content analysis of 50,000+ stories in 2010 showed that entertainment coverage makes up a small fraction of overall media coverage (0.4 percent). However, of all media covering entertainment news, morning shows cover it most, with NBC leading the way, followed by ABC and CBS.

Newspapers devote the smallest amount of space to entertainment news, which may, in part, explain this tweet by The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof:

“If there’s anything that symbolizes the bankruptcy of TV news today, it’s the focus on Charlie Sheen.”

This story, though, could be about more than Charlie Sheen. There is an interesting story in the discrepancy between the reaction — by his bosses, the media and the public — to his recent behavior compared to what he’s done before.

New York Times media writer David Carr notes that Sheen was charged in 2009 with domestic violence and has a history of mistreating women. Carr wonders why that abusive behavior did not get him fired from his CBS comedy, but insubordination may have.

“So the message from CBS and Warner Brothers seems clear: abuse yourself and the women around you to your heart’s content, but do not attack the golden goose. … Hollywood likes to pretend it has grown up and taken its seat in corporate America. But it hasn’t when it comes to violence toward women.”

Several others wondered, as well, why Sheen’s bosses appeared more bothered by his verbal abuse of them than by a pattern of physically abusing women. Perhaps this was simply the last straw. Or a sign of worse to come.

As we’ve seen Sheen strike out after being told he could not return to work, I wonder: Is this what happens when someone says “no” to him?

Sheen used the phrase “violent love” during his “Today” show interview, and no one questioned his use of the oxymoron. It was reminiscent of language used by Mel Gibson last summer in recordings that suggested a classic pattern of abusive behavior.

As my colleague Roy Peter Clark has written before — about saturation coverage of Tiger Woods and before that of Britney Spears — there is a third way to cover celebrities. Our choices are not limited to sensationalism or abstinence. We can cover the underlying issues surfaced by their situations, such as domestic violence and substance abuse.

Such “collateral journalism” moves us from chronicling celebrities’ high-profile struggles, which we do in abundance, to highlighting struggles of everyday Americans, which we don’t do enough.

Perhaps it’s time for the media to shift the spotlight toward these deeper concerns and away from Charlie Sheen — before its hot burn causes an explosion with collateral damage we’d all regret.

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  • Anonymous

    IMO, the over-coverage of Sheen’s antics is part of the 24 hour newsporn cycle It’s “me-me-look-at-me” need to generate income from advertising. they have to trot out someone who looks very, very bad (on the surface, not just inside–from a woman’s p.o.v. there’s nothing attractive about him) and wave him around like a colored flag to get the eyeballs. it’s like seeing someone executed by hanging on one platform only for the crowd to turn and see someone being electrocuted on another. It’s all awful with no redeeming social value, but people will look because it is sad spectacle that doesn’t affect them directly.

    And there is little true sympathy for those it does affect directly: Sheen’s family and small children. Theya re simply collateral in all this.

    Further, we can postulate about what’s driving Sheen’s breakdown: whether it’s bi-polar depression, addiction, psychotic break, or a combination. But if there’s no concrete proof–like a psychiatrist’s evaluation–then we’re just gossiping. Like we might during a train wreck before we learn it was the engineeer’s texting that caused the crash, not the cow on the tracks. So, there’s no real journalism in the speculation any more than there is viewing the spectacle.

    The bizaare and sad thing is, as you note, Julie, the treatment of women in all this: from his abused wives and lovers, to the “goddesses” he has living in his house with him. Our society’s attitudes towards women who marry rich men, as well as women who are hanging around with deranged playboys (like Hugh Hefner as well) ranges from approving lechery (the goddesses) to total lack of empathy (towards women who marry rich crazy guys.) As a society, and specifically in popular media, we still view women as objects that feed men’s fantasies, not as humans who could be making very bad mistakes for many reasons. When we begin to see things like prostituion, porn, and many other things in “entertainment” for what they are–pandering to men’s basest fantasies for money–then we see women as more than animated blow up dolls. but we’ve got a real long way to go.

  • http://twitter.com/garyschwitzer Gary Schwitzer

    In Minneapolis-St. Paul, MinnPost.com media reporter David Brauer posted a thoughtful review of local TV’s Sheen coverage. http://www.minnpost.com/braublog/2011/03/02/26258/did_local_tv_experts_violate_ethics_rules_in_charlie_sheen_stories

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher
    http://www.HealthNewsReview.org/blog

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Hi, Gary, it’s good to hear from you. Thanks for posting the link, it raises important questions about this coverage. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001114413274 Dan Austin

    How wonderful it is to see the Great Guardians of Approved Opinion be so tied up in a web of their own contrived insinuations about the lifestyle and character of one man.

    Charlie Sheen has the MSM — and its so-called peer-reviewers — pissing in the wind and tripping over themselves, and I couldn’t be happier!

    Go Charlie!

  • http://twitter.com/garyschwitzer Gary Schwitzer

    Some of us have focused our criticism on the “experts” who diagnose Sheen from afar, having never examined him in person. One site suggests it’s a violation of “the Goldwater rule” of ethics of the American Psychiatric Association. See my blog post, “Charlie Sheen & media psychobabble.”

    http://www.healthnewsreview.org/blog/2011/03/charlie-sheen-media-psychobabble.html

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher
    http://www.healthnewsreview.org/blog

  • NadePaulKuciGravMcKi

    What did Michael Jackson try to say?
    Charlie Sheen questions Obama about 9/11
    despite AIPAC controlled media censorship.
    Mel Gibson does not play dumb about 9/11 either.