A media-twisted idea of normalcy
Last week's most telling news story had nothing to do with the mosque. Or the election struggles of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Or the president's vacation at the Vineyard.
No, the one story that reveals more than any other about what is going on in America concerns the Miss Universe contest.
Many favored the Philippines' Maria Venus Raj to win this year. But her quest for the crown came to a halt when, in the final round, she had this exchange with Billy Baldwin, one of the judges:
Baldwin: "What is one big mistake that you've made in your life, and what did you do to make it right?"
Miss Philippines: "Thank you so much, sir, for that wonderful question. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening, Las Vegas. You know what, sir? In my 22 years of existence, I can say there is nothing major, major, I mean, problem that I have done in my life. Because I am very confident with my family, with the love that they are giving to me. So thank you so much that I am here. Thank you, thank you so much."
There has been rampant speculation that her answer cost her the crown, and I think I know why: Nobody believed her. A 22-year-old with no baggage? No way. Couldn't be true. Makes no sense.
Because that doesn't match the media depiction of normalcy. We don't celebrate individuals with a clean track record. We shun them. And in their place, we lionize those who make fools of themselves under the guise of reality programming. (If this sounds like a "holier-than-thou" pitch, it isn't. Had someone asked me on Monday night about my mistakes through age 22, I'd still be talking.)
Consider that if NBC's Miss Universe broadcast wasn't your first programming choice, you had some alternatives: "Kate Plus 8" or "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." "Jersey Shore" or Jerseylicious. Maybe "The Real Housewives" of New Jersey and New York and D.C. and Orange County and Atlanta. Or the granddaddy of them all, "The Real World" — where, ironically, nothing appears remotely real.
Society is being conditioned to believe that these shows represent reality. They don't. Is there anything remotely relevant to your life in Snooki's getting arrested for disorderly conduct or The Situation's flashing his abs?
This accentuation of the aberrant becomes self-perpetuating. How else to explain the presidential-like coverage afforded to Lindsay Lohan's ankle bracelet, Britney Spears' buzz cut, and the knucklehead who quit JetBlue? It's because they are each reminiscent of what we see in so-called reality television. That's the world Balloon Boy's parents were seeking when they spent an afternoon leading us to believe that their son was stuck in a runaway Jiffy Pop pan; and it's the same one the Salahis wished to enter when they crashed the White House. In the case of the latter, it worked. Mrs. Salahi now appears on the Washington installment of "Real Housewives."
With that, she joins the growing ranks of individuals famous simply for being famous. Their aberrant behavior is their calling card — one that offers little to no redeeming value. There's nothing new about aberrant behavior. In the past, we celebrated a band like Led Zeppelin because they produced great music — not because of the lore in which they threw televisions out hotel windows. These days, the misbehavior is all you need to be a star.
In this environment, there is no interest or desire to hear someone like Miss Philippines assert that she has no baggage. She refused to participate in the self-flagellation. And unfortunately, she lost out because of it.
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Contact him at www.smerconish.com.