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National Enquirer's Whitney Houston photo: Why are we shocked?

February 23, 2012|By Rene Lynch
  • Balloons, flowers, candles and other mementos were left outside New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N. J., where Whitney Houston's funeral service was held.
Balloons, flowers, candles and other mementos were left outside New Hope… (JMP / Abaca Press/MCT )

The National Enquirer's cover photo of Whitney Houston lying in a casket has sparked outrage in the media world. On Twitter and on Facebook, on blogs and on media websites, the pundits are harrumphing and accusing the supermarket tabloid of finally going too far.

And that's why we'd like to offer a completely different view -- from Marc Cooper, an associate professor at USC and the director of the Annenberg Digital News.

"To use a cliche, it's much ado about nothing," Cooper said.

Granted, early indications are that the photo might have been covertly obtained against the family's wishes, and most likely sold. And no one is trying to defend doing such a thing to a grieving family.

But publishing the photo? This is the National Enquirer, people.

"It's completely consistent with the National Enquirer," Cooper said. "I'm surprised that anyone is surprised that the National Enquirer would publish that. This is not something terribly far afield from what their standard is."

Further, he said, the photo reflects the gotta-see-it media-driven world in which we live. "If something happened, and it is viewable, and it is factual, it is going to be very difficult to keep that away from the public," he said.

Sounding like a professor plotting out his next class, Cooper played devil's advocate as well.

"I don't think anyone turned to stone by looking at it," he said. "There is a certain right to privacy that individuals have, or their families have. But when you are a public figure that has made tens of millions of dollars by being a celebrity among the public, you probably surrender a lot of those rights even in the afterlife."

Then he turned the mainstream media's criticism back on the mainstream media.

Journalists have long railed against limits on the media's ability to photograph such things as soldiers' caskets arriving from overseas battlegrounds, even though some people say soldiers' families deserve privacy in that respect. And it's no longer unusual for some media outlets to show corpses in the wake of, say, a terrorist bombing.

How different is publication of the casket photo? Houston looks elegant and peaceful in the photo. And many people take a picture of a loved one lying in a casket as a last, cherished memento.

"Does one believe there is something sacrosanct about a corpse?" Cooper asked.

Further, many media outlets have been relentless in covering every twist and turn of the Houston case -- and have no doubt delved into areas that the family would prefer be left alone.

If Houston's family had thrown open the doors of the memorial service to the media, the end result would have been much the same.

"Reading about it is only slightly less prurient than seeing it," Cooper added.

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