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When cowboys with cameras run rampant

January 28, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

Ever since they created pandemonium trying to cash in on Britney Spears' latest breakdown, the mindless herd of camera-packing cowboys known as the paparazzi have come under fire.

Although they have been around for years sticking their lenses in the faces of high-profile celebrities, the idea of anyone profiting from the pain of a pathetic, disoriented child-woman seems to cross the line.

They staked out her home when she was refusing to give up her kids, followed her to the hospital in one of those wild Aaron Spelling chases and then staked out the hospital while Dr. Phil, America's favorite psychologist, rushed to her side. I'm surprised the entire cast of "House," "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" didn't join him.

The paparazzi did what the paparazzi always do, jostling one another for the shot that would make the cover of the National Enquirer or for the footage to be seen on one of those entertainment programs. Big bucks awaited.

Hounding a stricken Spears as she lay on a gurney was not the final outrage, I guess. It could get worse. Given the nature of their recklessness, who knows when one of them might conceal himself in a coffin at a celebrity funeral for a final shot of the dead?

The so-called legitimate media aren't blameless, contributing to the problem by pounding through crowds of the curious with their own cameras to record the latest doings or undoings of Britney, Paris, Nicole, Winona, Lindsay, Jessica and all of the other skinny icons of pop culture. We have created an almost obsessive need to know what they're wearing and what they're not wearing, what they're eating, drinking, smoking and snorting and where and for how long they'll be in rehab -- this time. We have become fixated on those who truly don't matter that much.

In some ways, it can all be dismissed as Hollywood, a case of luminaries being victimized by the symbiotic relationship with the media that they had encouraged in the first place. The problem today is that there are just too many paparazzi, competition among them has increased and they'll do just about anything short of sky-diving down the chimney of Paris Hilton's home to win the day.

As a result, both the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the LAPD are promising to pay more attention to the illegal behavior of the more aggressive members of the freelance herd. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore declined to call it a crackdown, noting that the department is simply enforcing the law, but acknowledged that deputies would be on special alert to curtail any of the paparazzi's unlawful activities. They would be well-advised, for instance, to drive safely, have license plates on their cars and not spit out the window.

When I asked Whitmore if this might become a 1st Amendment issue, he replied that the rights of the media are paramount and "must be protected and encouraged," but "when people break the law, we'll cite them."

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, sees a possible collision between the media's rights under the 1st Amendment and the people's rights to privacy, safety and not feeling threatened by the lunatic fringe of the cowboys with cameras.

Although there is obvious reason to enforce the law, she said, any "rules" applied to tame the paparazzi could eventually be applied to other media, and that would most definitely infringe on the rights of a free press. She added: "We're just asking for everyone to use good judgment."

That, of course, is the source of the problem.

Only once or twice have I been in any kind of a celebrity-driven mob scene, more as an observer than a participant. I remember the flash of apprehension one time when the herd -- a volatile mix of paparazzi, national media and local press -- suddenly spotted Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss when she was on trial and thundered forward like stampeding cattle, carrying me along with it whether I wanted to go or not.

There was that feeling of being amid a drunken, out-of-control mob at a British soccer game or a political uprising where one's fate is in the hands of everyone else, and they're all a little mad. And now it's becoming worse as the number of paparazzi has grown and they have become less restrained in their need to obtain what could be a million-dollar sale to an entertainment outlet.

The 1st Amendment must, by necessity, embrace pornographers and graceless freelancers, else it would be slowly eroded by eliminating the exceptions. But it remains a sad state of affairs when Hollywood celebrities become so important that thugs with cameras are allowed to run rampant.

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