New York Times Magazine – 29 October 2000
The age of the mediathon
By Frank Rich
'Birth of a Genre
Nearly a decade after its conclusion, the Persian Gulf war is already looking like a footnote to American history. Saddam Hussein still reigns, and Dick Cheney is reduced to reminding oblivious voters that he was the guy who ran the Pentagon way back then. But in the history of American entertainment, the marathon TV extravaganza that CNN forged out of the war looms as a landmark. Like ''The Birth of a Nation'' (1915), ''The Jazz Singer'' (1927) and Milton Berle's ''Texaco Star Theater'' (1948) -- the phenomena that respectively sped the rise of the feature film, the talking picture and network television -- War in the Gulf'' (as CNN decorously titled it) introduced a novel kind of audience-pleasing spectacle that just may be the most popular new cultural form in America.
Alternately as grim and voyeuristic as the dance-endurance contests of the Depression and as redolent of cheesy show-biz piety as a televised Jerry Lewis charity binge, this new genre could be named the Mediathon: a relentless hybrid of media circus, soap opera and tabloid journalism we have come to think of as All Calamity All the Time. ''War in the Gulf'' paved the way for the host of breathless sequels that have blanketed the culture ever since: ''The O.J. Simpson Case,'' ''Who Killed JonBenet?'' ''The Death of Princess Diana,'' ''John Kennedy Jr.'s Plane Is Missing,'' ''Massacre at Columbine,'' ''Will Elian Go Back to Cuba?'' and of course the biggest crowd-pleaser of them all, ''Scandal at the White House.''
In their bathetic power and ubiquity, these infotainment sagas would seem to be eclipsing even those narratives that have traditionally dominated the news. This year's presidential race is the most competitive in 40 years, and while it may be suspenseful, or (so we're told) important, it just isn't entertaining enough to match a true Mediathon's ability to capture the national imagination and to command wall-to-wall TV airtime. Mediathons are not merely ''water cooler'' programs, as TV executives refer to shows with the ability to stimulate workplace chitchat the next day -- they're total national immersion. If you are not completely caught up in one as it unfolds, then you must spend a considerable amount of time defensively explaining to those around you what snotty principle keeps you aloof. To not be up on an instant phenomenon like the ''fisherman'' (he was actually a toilet cleaner) who miraculously rescued Elian is now considered a derogation of democratic duty more damning than, say, not voting on Nov. 7.
American media circuses date as far back as the Lindbergh kidnapping trial of 1935, if not to the penny-press fixation on the trial that acquitted the accused murderer of the prostitute Helen Jewett in the New York City of 1836. TV has offered ''continuous'' coverage of breaking news since President Kennedy's assassination. And then there was Ted Koppel's nightly coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis, which eventually begat ''Nightline.'' But in ''War in the Gulf,'' cable's first all-news network surpassed these forms by melding them, updating their primitive technology and bursting through their previous boundaries of time and space. The gulf war was the first war to have its own logos, theme music and telegenic overnight stars (whether leading men like Colin Powell or Robert Duvall-esque character types like Peter Arnett). Most important, it played out in real time before a mass audience -- the first instance history had been shaped (and spun, often by the military brass) on the spot into a dramatic 24/7 TV mini-series.
This was a real advance from the episodic media circuses of media antiquity -- which were limited by the relatively unwieldy analog mechanics of newspaper extras, newsreels and radio. ''War in the Gulf'' forged a kind of epic electronic canvas that never has to sleep and can unfurl for weeks, months and years if need be. It comes complete with an extravagant De Mille-size cast of supporting actors and extras labeled experts. But unlike Hollywood's casts of thousands -- who had to be paid -- the armchair generals, preening academics and Washington bloviators who endlessly sliced and diced each day's dramatic action were so eager for TV celebrity that they played their roles and improvised their scripts gratis. So much so that they were capable of vamping for hours on end, pumping artificial respiration into a story that otherwise had no fresh information to sustain it.
The audience cheered: ''War in the Gulf'' was the ratings triumph that put the previously struggling CNN on the map. In the imitations that followed, it quickly became apparent that news as momentous and rare as wars and assassinations were not required to make the form tick. Sex, celebrity and money would do just fine, and infrared videos of bombings, or any other pricey special effects, were not essential. An event as bland to the eye as a Ford Bronco cruising monotonously down a California freeway was enough to captivate a nation and provide major speaking roles for all the stars of TV news. Even a persnickety Dickensian tintype, like the law professor Jonathan Turley during Monicagate, would do to fill endless airtime while the audience waited, sometimes for weeks, for the next twist in the plot. Most prime-time network newsmagazines, which initially resisted cable's all-crisis agenda, soon fell into line.
Far from requiring pyrotechnics, the Mediathon is at its most effective when it refurbishes and recharges the simple, classic archetypes of American pulp entertainment. ''The Crime of the Century.'' ''The Washington Sex Scandal.'' ''A Star Is Born.'' And its characters, heroic and not, are also often drawn from type. O.J. Simpson, sleek, murderous cad, inhabits the glinting sex-and-death L.A. of noir novelists from Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy; Monica Lewinsky is the Clara Bow ingenue overwhelmed by the unexpected brightness of a national klieg light on her carnal history.
Like all new entertainment forms in their infancy, the Mediathon is controversial. The debate about what these bloated media circuses mean to the future of democracy -- and to its supposed handmaiden, journalism -- has itself spawned a new, highly populated industry, though not a particularly scintillating one. The tone of the debate is awfully grand. Watching media critics and network executives perform their post-mortems and mea culpas is a little like attending an academic conference on the semiotics of sitcoms. What's missing is the point of view of the stars around whom the entire gargantuan enterprise must revolve.
The stars of the Mediathons really see how the strings move. They see what happens in the wings. They see how the audience eats it up. They see the distinctions between what we think is ''real'' in the spectacle and the reality that they experience.
While we all know what it's like to gorge on these reality epics, only a tiny handful of Americans know what it's like to be thrust center stage in one -- to be drafted by their behavior, fate or circumstance to serve as our entertainment fodder. This is why, in taking the measure of the Mediathon as it solidifies its hold on our culture, I decided to forsake the usual gang of press watchdogs and talking heads to seek insights instead from two of the form's biggest (but very different) stars: Monica Lewinsky, a private citizen dragged onto the national stage against her will; and O.J. Simpson, a lifelong media hog who found himself in one drama he couldn't control. For added perspective, I also turned to Darva Conger, who set off a far more fleeting national frenzy as the overnight ''bride'' of TV's short-lived ''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?''; and to Woody Allen, who eight years ago was at the center of an old-style, pre-MSNBC, pre-Drudge media circus sparked by the revelation of his affair with Soon-Yi Previn. I offered each of them the opportunity to play the role of media critic and serve as backstage witness -- asking them to vent (or enthuse) about the Mediathons that were constructed around their stories rather than rehash the well-worn stories themselves. I asked them to help delineate the line where, in their view, journalism teeters into fictionalized entertainment.
The Reluctant Ingenue
Getting an audience with Monica Lewinsky is not easy. If she could return to her former anonymity, she says, she would. The minimal press she does now is only out of absolute necessity -- to promote the handbags that are her livelihood as she continues to pay off her legal bills.
To make the case for my interview, I first had an off-the-record meeting with her mother, Marcia Lewis Straus, a warm, sharply articulate woman for whom maintaining her family's privacy has become an understandable, and consuming, cause. Straus in no way resembled the clownish, brassy stage mother of her media coverage, and when I returned to her home for a second off-the-record conversation, this time with her daughter present, I found a subdued, businesslike Monica Lewinsky who had little resemblance to the ''Monica'' of Monicagate, either. Chatting in the proper Old World living room of her mother and stepfather's Midtown Manhattan apartment, I was reminded more of my own middle-class Jewish relatives' homes than of the gaudy America of the Starr report. Though like everyone else I know Lewinsky's face as well as my own, I realized I didn't know the person at all.
Nor was I about to get to know her now. She agreed to speak to me to advance her views about my topic, period. Even as Bill Clinton prepares to leave office, Lewinsky remains muzzled somewhat by the legal exigencies of her immunity deal with the Office of the Independent Counsel. The O.I.C. required Lewinsky to have a lawyer present during my on-the-record interview with her in order to intervene should she drift into areas she is still legally forbidden to discuss publicly. But Lewinsky -- wary, circumspect and now well schooled in the ways of law and journalism -- never gave the lawyer, Judith Poller, cause to speak up. (Because Poller's presence was required by law, The Times paid the $700 legal fee.)
No one has more bitterly attained her expertise on the subject of the Mediathon than Lewinsky. History will record that it was her misfortune to surface as a star player at the precise moment that the full arsenal of 21st-century media (as we know it so far) was falling into place. The O.J. Simpson trial's only full-time cable outlets had been CNN and Court TV, but by the time Monicagate arrived, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel (both of which began broadcasting in 1996) had been added to the competitive mix, exponentially increasing the volume of coverage and its decibel level; so had the Internet, which was just becoming a mass medium when Matt Drudge first published Lewinsky's name.
Not only was a 22-year-old who had neither sought fame nor committed a crime the focus of this entire apparatus, and its vast audience, but she was also in essence a poignant mute hostage to it all -- both figuratively and literally to our new media epics what Mary Pickford was to silent movies. Since Lewinsky's legal jeopardy prohibited her from talking to the press, she had no choice but to remain silent even as her image and her story morphed into profit centers for the entertainment industry.
''When I was introduced to the world, I couldn't define myself,'' she recalled -- noting that, by contrast, the president ''had the White House'' and its immense P.R. machine to help mold his story. To create the character known as ''Monica,'' she quickly discovered, the media turned not only to the leakers and spinners working for both Clinton and Kenneth Starr but also ''to every single person in my high school, my grade school.'' She went on to say: ''Once the name and picture were out there, then it was, 'Let's start giving her attributes and start forming her as a person.' Everything was scrutinized and analyzed by the TV psychologists, and the persona was created.''
Lewinsky cites Jeffrey Rosen's book ''The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America'' when she talks of how a few facts about her, some of them inaccurate or outright hoaxes, were ''wrenched out of context'' to create a cartoon figure rigidly in line with every past political sex scandal. ''There was this immediate notion that I was kind of a dumb bimbo,'' she says. ''And that was really offensive to me because, I mean, I'm not a genius, I'm not necessarily very intellectual, but I am intelligent.'' One ''laughable'' consequence was that an army of journalists made fools of themselves constructing convoluted theories as to who wrote Lewinsky's legalistic ''talking points'' for Linda Tripp. Though Lewinsky herself wrote them, the press never questioned its own false premise that she was too dumb to have done so.
When TV news stars made insulting remarks about Lewinsky on the air even as they were sending fawning letters and fruit baskets to seduce her into an interview, she attributed that hypocrisy as well to ''an unspoken thought that I must be stupid.'' She gave her first major interview to Barbara Walters in part because Walters earned her respect by not trying to snow her with flowers and ''some long letter.''
Assumptions about Lewinsky's background were as caricatured as those about her intelligence. ''My dad's not a Beverly Hills doctor,'' she says. ''His practice is in the valley. I was raised in Beverly Hills, but I hadn't lived in Beverly Hills for 10 years. None of my family live in Beverly Hills. But because I 'came from Beverly Hills,' people automatically assumed my parents were wealthy. So it doesn't really matter what's happening to her because, well, she's got money, her parents can pay for this. The reality was that I come from a comfortable background, but not with reserves of cash on hand for an emergency like this.''
However titillating the fictionalized Monica Lewinsky was for the audience, it left her feeling violated. ''Until I got immunity, I watched everything and tried to read everything,'' she says. ''Some days it is hurtful and you cry, and some days it makes you angry and you scream at the TV and throw stuff at it. And sometimes you just have to laugh at it. You make up names for the talking heads. Otherwise you can't get through it.'' Lewinsky and her mother used to joke that ''sources close to Monica'' meant that ''if you drove by the Watergate'' -- where she then lived -- you were a source 'close' to Monica.'' The story is funny, but not in the way Lewinsky tells it: she laughs, but she doesn't light up.
Like the rest of us, she, too, could not escape the endlessly recycled video clip of her on the rope line with President Clinton: ''It was torturous for me. I would joke with my friends, I was sick of Monica Lewinsky!'' She had to live in fear of her next close-up. ''The press's insatiable appetite was difficult because there weren't any rules in place. So people were allowed to be on the roof of the building across the way from us, or stand outside our house 24 hours a day so we couldn't go outside, because then you could get photographed and then the interpretation of the picture would signal something legally. The citizens have a right to know the truth, but if I'm living around the press, it's really not the truth anyway.''
Indeed, Lewinsky, whose previous show-biz experience had been limited to high school musical theater, eventually found that she had to behave just like an actress, following a ''ludicrous and surreal'' script and attending to hair and makeup. ''It really just became routine: walk out of the Watergate, get into the taxi, nah, nah, nah,'' she recalls. ''You don't look, you don't answer questions'' -- lest she fall prey to the often profane attempts by paparazzi to bait her into a response. While Lewinsky conceivably faced jail, she soon realized that her media role required her to fret over the trivial: ''This sounds vain, but I'm a human being. So it's impossible not to have my feelings hurt, and I had to worry about how I looked. People are making comments about my weight, and, O.K., do I look fat in this outfit? Does my hair look O.K.?'' Never mind that her fate and that of a White House hung in the balance -- That was an element that I had to focus on.''
As ''Scandal at the White House'' continued, Lewinsky became more like a hard-bitten star under contract to the old studios. She grew sophisticated about the assembly line that produced her show and condemned her to typecasting. Her character, once created, was as immutable as Jean Harlow's at MGM; the press didn't want to hear positive information that would contradict it. ''The harsher your story was, the meaner the item or juicier the item you could tell about me, the more money you'd get,'' she says. Two former high-school classmates turned gossiping about her into a business, trying to peddle information to ''Inside Edition,'' The Globe, The Star and London's Sun. One former Los Angeles neighbor sold a bar mitzvah video in which she appeared. Though the mainstream media did not pay for information, gossip and phony scoops moved quickly up the chain from tabloids to establishment outlets.
''There are some people who are fortunate enough to develop really thick skins to what's said about them, but I'm not one of them,'' Lewinsky says with resignation. It's hard not to find her a sympathetic figure. Since almost everyone in her drama abused her trust, how can she be expected to trust anyone, let alone a journalist? When our conversation shifted into a normal flow, she would often put on the brakes, as if she were figuring that I, too, would misrepresent her. My natural impulse to offer reassurance was always neutered by the chilling realization that there was no line I could say that wouldn't sound disingenuous; she has heard it all before. Far from seeming like an ingenue, she seems like a survivor of a siege who barely escaped with her life.
King of the Real-Life B's
These days, O.J. Simpson rambles, in conversation and, it seems, in life. Our contacts -- all, ultimately, by phone -- were arranged by an intermediary, who would set specific times for our conversations, which Simpson rarely honored. He seemed to be moving arbitrarily among hotels, mainly in his new home state, Florida, where he had registered under various pseudonyms.
In stark contrast to Lewinsky, Simpson has spent his entire adult lifetime voluntarily before the media -- albeit in widely varying roles, ranging from square football hero to affable rental-car pitchman to Hollywood ''actor'' to presumed murderer. He doesn't seem about to retire. ''I trained for fame when I was a kid,'' he said. ''God gave it to me, and I like it. Even today, it bothers people around me more than it bothers me. I accepted years ago that I would be interrupted at dinner or going down the street. The only way it's changed since the trial is that I think more people recognize me now than ever before. In the mid-70's or something, I was third-most recognized behind Nixon and somebody. But now it's almost as if people have to hug me or touch me. It's not just a wave or autographs -- people show more emotion. More women want to hug me. 'We love you! We pray for you!'''
So he says, but these days Simpson is decidedly not the star he once was; he's the has-been former headliner eking out an existence on the show-biz fringe. When we first spoke, he had just concluded a brief and somewhat disastrous press rollout of a new Web site whose ''Juice Shop'' allows a visitor to load up a shopping cart with items like a signed replica of a Bills jersey ($349) and ''various'' autographed photos ($100). Barbara Walters had disinvited him from ''The View,'' and Katie Couric had quizzed him mercilessly on the ''Today'' show about his search for the killer. By the time I spoke to him, he had his act together on that question: ''In L.A., since my trial, there are probably 2,000, 3,000 unsolved homicides. They would all like to find out who did it -- but what can you do? I've met with maybe 25 other people in L.A. from families whose relatives were murdered and are unsolved, and they don't know what to do.'' Referring to the Northwestern University student project that has helped prove the innocence of inmates on death row, he added: ''I don't have these colleges doing it for me. There's very, very little I can do in that area. But the media use that against me.''
He was also fuming about a new National Enquirer story alleging that he is suicidal and illustrated with an ambiguous photograph in which he is supposedly brandishing some kind of gun. ''This is the biggest pile of [expletive] I've ever seen,'' he said. ''It's typical of what I deal with. I don't have a gun. It could be a water pistol for my kids -- I'm always playing with those.'' He said that the photo was taken outside his old home on Rockingham. ''I haven't been there in four years. If someone had a film of me like that from there, they would have sold it long ago to 'Inside Edition.'''
These days, press critic is Simpson's favorite role -- if not, it might be said, for entirely altruistic reasons. But once we got past his own self-exonerations, he sounded not unlike any media navel-gazer on a panel convened by Marvin Kalb or Howard Kurtz.
With what seemed like pride, Simpson reminded me of his historic status -- that his story pioneered the conflating of mainstream and tabloid news that now routinely fuels Mediathons. ''In my trial,'' he said, ''when the mainstream media ran out of far-out stories on O.J., for the first time in history they went to the tabloids -- they let the National Enquirer lead the news.''
Seizing the moral high ground, he deplored the decline in journalistic standards since his days as a network sports commentator: ''When I was on assignment from NBC, I didn't delve into issues that didn't have anything to do with players' performances on the field. If I had to go there, I'd be in and out of that subject as quickly as possible. Today it's all about finding out the dirt. Just look at this John Rocker situation. I'm a black guy, I read what Rocker said and thought it was stupid. But in the past, you could say that around the media. You know, enough of your senior people knew what John Kennedy was doing, but at the time that wasn't news.'' By contrast, he said, ''the Rocker story was overdone'' to sustain controversy and fill TV time.
''You read Walter Cronkite's book -- I thought he summed it up best,'' Simpson continued. ''When he was doing the news at the beginning of his career, the news division was a source of prestige for the network. They left him alone. But by the late 70's, they saw you could make money on news. Once they saw you could make money, the promotion people took over -- he'd see promos that had nothing to do with whatever he was reporting. Once the news became a source of profit, everything changed. Who can have the most far-out story? Who can have the most provocative promo?''
Simpson says he won't quarrel with ''anyone's opinion'' about ''what the facts led to during the trial -- I accept it whatever way it is.'' He wants to defend the vanished purity of the news: ''I never knew what Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley thought about a story they were telling. Now, with an eyebrow, and sarcastic kind of wiggles, you get commentary from the anchors.''
His ''biggest complaint'' about his own coverage ''was the laziness -- they're so darned lazy, the media,'' he said. ''They sit back, they wait for a tabloid story, then they all jump on it. Where were the two confirmed sources? Where has that gone? Our forefathers gave a certain autonomy to the media because they're the watchdogs of the system. The media are going to watch the police, they're going to watch the judicial system, when the simple fact of the matter now is that they become bedfellows with these people.'' For vindication of his critique, Simpson points to the scandal in the Rampart police division of Los Angeles, in which 100 prisoners have been released because of accusations of police malfeasance. ''In L.A., they're just relying on the D.A.'s office for the stories, and they don't want to cut off the faucet of tips. With all the investigative reporters on the crime beat, somebody must have known something was wrong with Rampart.
''I'm more upset with the press than I am with the legal system,'' he went on to say. ''I find more good cops in L.A. than I find people in the media. When the facts don't lead to a good story, the media become vague about the facts. They never get anyone to confirm a story -- it's always 'a friend of O.J.' When one call would clear it up, but they think it's got legs, nobody checks a thing because keeping it vague lets them get a couple of more days of story out of it.''
Asked to survey other stories that have rivaled his, Simpson said, ''Clinton's coverage was in many ways worse than mine.'' He cites the Eli1/3n Gonz1/3lez saga, which he witnessed firsthand in Miami, as an example of the discrepancies between TV epics and reality: ''A lot of Cubans in Florida thought that the kid should go home whether they liked Castro or not. But from TV you'd think every Cuban in Miami wanted him to stay.'' To Simpson, the Gonz1/3lez case was a classic example of how desperate the media are to contrive new entertainments as stellar as his was. ''Everybody is vying for the new story, and how many stories are there? How many O.J. stories could there be?'' In his view, the JonBenet Ramsey case was a particularly weak pretender to the media-circus throne. ''How can people make so much controversy about the guilt or innocence of the Ramseys when they weren't even charged? At least they charged me!''
As for those constant press reports of people telling him off when he appears in public, Simpson says that the media, eager to make him into a pariah, report only on the anomalous heckler and never on the otherwise enthusiastic fans he meets wherever he goes. To prove it, he invited me to walk around with him in New York to gauge the warmth showered on him by strangers. But when I arrived at the appointed time at the hotel where he said he was staying, he was a no-show. An hour later, he left a rambling message on my home answering machine -- an indication that he still enjoys some of the prerequisites of stardom, since somehow he got my unlisted number. ''This is Mr. Calloway,'' he said on the tape, referring to the assumed name he had been using that night. ''Or Simpson. Or whatever.''
Clearly this is a guy who has yet to land his next role.
The Farcical Heroine
Somewhere between Simpson and Lewinsky in her perception of life at the center of a 24/7 Mediathon is Darva Conger, who starred in one of the more benign examples of this year. Conger was the woman chosen in February by a presumed multimillionaire, Rick Rockwell, to be his bride on the short-lived Fox experiment ''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'' Though Fox fell under heavy criticism for its inept vetting of Rockwell's personal and financial history and yanked the program after one broadcast -- and though the ''marriage'' was annulled without being consummated -- the circus raged on for weeks, not just a Warholian 15 minutes. Conger and Rockwell earned a front-page picture in The New York Times as well as repeated appearances on the network morning shows, prime-time newsmagazines and ''Larry King Live.''
I sought out Conger after seeing her interview on CBS's ''48 Hours,'' in which she cheerfully stated, without self-pity though with a certain postmodern irony, ''I am probably one of the biggest examples right now of the power, the pervasiveness and, I think somehow, the insidiousness of the media in our society.''
We met for lunch at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, near where Conger lives and, until all pseudomatrimonial hell broke loose, worked as an emergency-room nurse. At first, I thought no one in the crowded room recognized her, but gradually it became clear that there were constant stares from the various tables of women and men dining around us on a business day. Conger took it in stride.
''I like it when someone makes a point of coming up to me and giving me a hug and saying they support me,'' she said. ''Yes, I'm human. That's flattery. I like that. And I like the 10 percent discounts I get from a couple of boutiques here and there. But I'm a little leery when someone runs up and tells me what a big fan they are. Why are they fans? I have become the accidental celebrity. And, truly, it wasn't hard to do.''
Indeed, if Simpson's media circus was seamy, and Lewinsky's somewhat tragic, Conger's was, as she puts it, ''dark comedy'' -- if not pure farce. Her story is akin to those of the Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard heroines in screwball comedies like ''Easy Living'' and ''Nothing Sacred'' in which an ordinary woman becomes the talk of the town by accident. Only we're not in the 1930's anymore. ''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'' became the talk of the world.
Conger didn't instantly appreciate the magnitude of what she had stepped into. Immediately after the show was broadcast, she and Rockwell went on a Caribbean ''honeymoon'' -- a weeklong cruise that put her out of reach of newspapers and TV. ''I knew 22 million people had seen it, but I didn't think it was that big a deal. And then I came back, and they diverted our flight to get us away from the media, so I caught on a little bit. Then I got to my house, and it was calm because they didn't realize I was back yet.
''But two days later, I looked outside my door and saw at least 80 paparazzi and people in trees with long-lens cameras. The phone rang incessantly. And then everywhere I turned -- there was my face.''
She says she received a personal, hand-delivered letter from Diane Sawyer. ''She gave me her home number. She just wanted me to come on and talk to her. Tabloids were sliding checks under my door for six figures and offering my mother outrageous amounts of money.''
Conger supports her widowed mother, who, strangely enough in this context, is the actress Susan Harrison, now remembered for one film role, as Burt Lancaster's sister in the 1957 classic ''Sweet Smell of Success'' -- in which she played a victim of the Hearst tabloid media of Walter Winchell's heyday. But Conger, who is 35, wasn't born until after her mother ended her screen career and had minimal contact with show business prior to her on-screen ''marriage.'' Now she has tasted overnight stardom of a magnitude well beyond anything her mother ever experienced.
Conger pointedly takes responsibility for ''opening the door'' to media attention, though it never occurred to her in advance that she would receive more than a taste of it. ''This is not a poor-me sob story -- I am not a victim,'' she says. ''I did a dumb thing.'' The dumb thing was acceding to a telephone offer recruiting her to be a contestant on Fox's stunt show in the first place, figuring that the only prize she would get out of it was a free weeklong trip to Las Vegas, where the program was shot.
She is still stunned at the rapacity with which she was soon pursued. The invasions of her privacy included tabloid efforts to photograph her hospitalized brother. She lost her nursing job -- a new position in which she didn't yet have permanent-employee status -- because, she feels, hospital administrators feared her sudden celebrity would provoke rubbernecking, paparazzi invasions and other distractions in an emergency room. To try to stanch the hysteria, Conger decided to make the rounds of mainstream talk shows, from Sawyer's ''Good Morning America'' to Larry King, hoping that if she told her story to the networks, ''leaving no questions unasked,'' the stakeouts and tabloid ambushes would subside and her life would return to normal. Instead, the attention only increased.
''My mom and I couldn't go to the hospital to visit my brother. I couldn't even go to the gym. I take responsibility for creating this sensation, but really this should never have been front-page news in America.''
Like Lewinsky, Conger found that notoriety brought mounting bills: her legal costs for the annulment, treatment for a breast-cancer scare after she lost her employer's health insurance. ''After my surgery, I had no money coming in. I was frightened. I had a mortgage payment coming up. I made a good living as a nurse -- $80,000 a year before this -- and I was really disheartened when I couldn't get another nursing job. I'm not wealthy, but I have a certain standard of living, and you don't get that money working fast food.'' Yet even as she wasn't able to work in her own profession, she found herself repeatedly invited on TV. Her epic had become self-perpetuating.
''My story is not hard news,'' she says. ''I've done nothing cutting-edge here. I'm entertainment fluff. But people saw me everywhere and thought, Wow, this must be news, so I'll watch it. And the media saw, Wow, we're getting ratings, so we're going to keep going. And the people said, She's still on TV, I must keep watching it. And the media said, Hey, every time we put her on TV, they keep watching it. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being made, and I'm losing my house!''
Finally, Conger took steps to get cut in on the action. ''Why not take advantage of the situation?'' she told Larry King. ''The situation certainly took advantage of me.'' After turning down fortunes offered by tabloids and pornographic Web sites, she took what was relatively the most respectable, if not the most lucrative, firm offer on the table: posing nude for Playboy. But when she made another round of talk shows at Playboy's behest to plug her pictorial, she found that the same media types who had once courted her with letters and flowers started dismissing her once she no longer ''suited their purposes.''
''I felt disillusioned when I watched Diane Sawyer look at my magazine and throw it over her shoulder. I never did anything to Diane Sawyer. Or to Matt Lauer, for that matter. I find it interesting that I was quizzed over and over by people of that stature about how I could pose for Playboy. How could I do something like that if I didn't want to be in the public eye? They look askance at me from their lofty position of making $7 million a year or whatever they make. They accused me of using them somehow, of being a publicity hound. But when was the last time anyone just strolled onto the set of the 'Today' show? I have never gone into a TV studio without an express invitation -- and not just an invitation, a full-scale courting. It's like: You're here talking to us, but how dare you? You're right, Matt. I leapt out of the door, ran onto the set and here I am!''
Eight years later, it's hard to imagine that Woody Allen was ever at the eye of a media hurricane. He has released eight movies since then. He and his wife have two young children. We talked in his Manhattan office and editing facility, on the first floor of an august Park Avenue apartment house. His attitude about what he experienced when his and Mia Farrow's private lives became an international fixation is surprisingly sanguine.
''I was on the cover of every magazine, and magazines all over the world,'' he remembers. ''I couldn't believe the amount of interest and size. From where I sat, a nonevent had spawned a multimillion-dollar business. Newspapers and magazines were set in motion, television shows, books. Lawyers were engaged, detectives were engaged, psychologists, the judiciary. It was much bigger than anything that I had experienced in show business. I've been to the opening of a movie and have won Academy Awards, and there's a certain attendant publicity that you get but not comparable to this.''
Allen recalled driving down Fifth Avenue with his publicist, Leslee Dart, to the Plaza Hotel, where he gave his news conference at the height of the storm. ''I said to her, 'What is going on there?' There were television trucks, and the block was lined with people, and traffic was congested. And she said, 'This is for you.'
''I just couldn't believe it at the time. It wasn't funny, but I found it ironically funny. And I understood why the media were so interested. In my case, and in these other cases as well, there was a juiciness to the story. Mine had a particularly entertaining quality to it, as did the Lewinsky thing and the O.J. Simpson one. The Elian Gonzalez case wasn't as entertaining. It missed the element of sexuality. It was more a family drama. And for the same reason that a family drama in the movies has kind of a bland and softer sell to it, you're much better off with murder and adultery and those things that make up the fabric of exciting drama. The audience didn't get tired of O.J., they never got tired of Princess Diana, they didn't get tired of Lewinsky.''
At the height of his own circus, Allen was caught up in a frenzy of Beatlemania proportions. ''We were housebound because there was so much paparazzi. Fortunately, at that time I was living in the penthouse on Fifth Avenue, and we would take our walks on the roof. When I had to go out downstairs, there was a doctor living in the building, and he would let me out through his entrance, and sometimes I could beat most of the paparazzi.''
And like Lewinsky, he found that fiction could be stirred into his story to keep it percolating. ''One completely untrue thing,'' Allen says, ''was that when I was shooting 'Manhattan Murder Mystery' there were always people bothering us in the street, people yelling out things -- but there was none of it. Zero.'' Even so, to Allen's astonishment, those in the audience who might know better made no distinctions between fact and fiction. ''Before this happened, my own parents would say, 'I read in the papers you're moving to California and buying a house out there.' I'd say, 'You know I'm not moving.' But they'd say, 'I read it in this column or that column or this paper.' And I'd say: 'I know you've read it, but you've read 500 things, none of which are true. You know me!'''
These days the hysteria of eight years ago has ''subsided completely,'' Allen says. ''It vanished like a bubble. One wants to say, as one who's been through that kind of media rush, that there is no connection between reality and the media circus. Just keep pursuing reality, and you find that gradually, reality -- a factor that I don't usually like -- takes its course. With the passage of a certain amount of time, all the frantic nonsense falls away. Everyone goes on to the next thing.''
Preview of Coming Attractions
Once we do move on, the frantic nonsense falls away for us, the audience, too. As one Mediathon follows another with greater and greater velocity -- whether war, scandal, crime or game-show stunt -- it's inevitable that they all blur together, at the same disposable level of popcorn entertainment, leaving no more permanent trace on the national consciousness than last year's hit summer movie. This, rather than any ideological conspiracy, may explain why Monicagate never sank Clinton's presidency as his adversaries hoped it would. This is why it's even possible that everyone does hug O.J. Simpson when he emerges in public; to many he's a superstar, and those images of a beaten Nicole have long since been overrun by Columbine, or is it JonBenet?
The audience may also discount the import of all the Mediathons because it knows by now how much of them is fiction. You'd have to be an idiot not to realize that the probable cause of John Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash was an inexperienced pilot's error, but we all feasted regardless on the fictions that pumped up that story into a 24/7 ordeal: the casting of Lauren Bessette as a villain whose late departure from work might have triggered the disaster; the false anecdote of a mournful nocturnal sailboat outing by Teddy Kennedy, the persistent reports that a flight inspector had been on board the plane itself.
Even after the shows end, the fictions abound. This summer the media fell for a publicity stunt staged by an obscure feminist political organization that supposedly ''offered'' Lewinsky a job and then ''rescinded'' it ''after protests'' hours later. (The ''offer'' was an unsolicited fax sent to her lawyer's office in Washington that she neither saw nor responded to.) Widespread reports that Conger was ''dating'' Geraldo Rivera (whom she ''met'' only through a satellite TV interview) also enjoyed a nice run a few weeks later. In this atmosphere, who knows whether we can believe or disbelieve Simpson's denial of a recent National Enquirer story in which an ex-girlfriend says he confessed details of the murders? The titillation of the tale is its own reward.
At the time of the Lindbergh trial, William Randolph Hearst observed, ''The public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information.'' Or, as Woody Allen says: ''The film audience constantly grouses about the junkiness of films and television, and yet when they're given the choice, they choose the junk. And so the media are always going to give them the junk.''
Allen fully concedes that he is sometimes part of that public. ''I followed the O.J. trial with great fascination. I have friends who wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was a fascinating piece of Americana in every way. It was real-life drama and interesting. There's a certain amount of news that falls over into entertainment. If you pick up The Times in the morning and the front page has got a real estate story and a New Jersey voting story, you have a general sense of disappointment.''
He's right, of course. Drama is addictive, and some news, even important news, isn't dramatic. This addiction afflicts not only consumers of our Mediathons but also those of us who write about them. Not only have I used Monicagate and O.J. Simpson as fodder for my Op-Ed column at The Times, but I am perpetuating them now with this article.
The Mediathon may, in any case, be an unstoppable phenomenon -- an inevitable product of a mainstream American culture that often prizes sheer heft (whether ''Moby-Dick'' or ''Gone With the Wind''), the mixing of fiction and journalism (whether John Dos Passos or Tom Wolfe), the stirring together of all genres into a single lumpy stew (whether ''The Ed Sullivan Show'' or ''Show Boat''). In the all-American tradition of W.P.A. murals and Cinemascope, the Mediathon may be the closest we have yet come to creating our own Wagnerian epic. As Ken Sunshine, a publicist who handles Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbra Streisand, puts it, Mediathons may win out in the mass marketplace in part by default right now because ''culturally, this is one of the most barren times ever.''
Unless the market rejects the genre -- as registered by declining ratings and circulation -- it's very likely to proliferate rather than decline. Already we're seeing that if there's no spontaneous news event, however trivial, that lends itself to round-the-clock treatment, then TV will revive an old favorite as an ''updated'' rerun (John and Patsy Ramsey are as reliable to the Mediathon as Lucy and Desi are to Nick at Nite) or manufacture a reality soap opera from scratch, complete with journalistic analysis of its ''news.'' In ''Survivor,'' with its political intrigues and banishments by ballot, CBS's entertainment and news divisions arrived upon the perfect, upbeat substitute for an impeachment drama, albeit with a largely younger and more appealing cast, a more picturesque setting and more lucrative product placement. ''Big Brother'' is nothing if not a spinoff of the Linda Tripp tapes, hobbled only by its inability to field stars as riveting as Tripp and Lewinsky.
What's more, reality TV, whether the ''real'' reality of ''Scandal at the White House'' or the faux reality of ''Survivor,'' is far cheaper to produce than fiction like ''West Wing'' or ''The Fugitive.'' If there's a Hollywood writers' and actors' strike next year, we may have all-reality programming all the time. Not that it will be so much different from what we have now. For every flop like NBC's Olympics (which were so overproduced that audiences dismissed them as unadulterated fiction) and CNN's wall-to-wall coverage of the Firestone tire recall, there will be countless new entrants blending the real with the false, substance with silliness.
Perhaps someday instead of decrying these spectacles, the cultural elites will bestow upon them their own awards ceremony like every other American entertainment genre. Darva Conger, who now has an agent and personal manager to pursue a full-time media career on both TV and the Web, should not be overlooked as a potential M.C.'
Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae
Frank Rich joined New York Magazine in June 2011 as Writer-at-Large, covering politics and culture.
Rich joined the magazine following a distinguished career at the New York Times. He was previously the paper’s chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993.
Some more information about Frank Rich is to be found at the website of New York Magazine (NYmag.com)