The fascination with people who inhabit the media’s "bigger world" was brought home to me in a very direct and personal way during a couple of years that I spent as a television reporter.
Although I was on the air only locally, in a medium-sized city, I found time and again that people treated me as if I were a distinguished emissary from some higher realm.
Their behavior was much more than the sort of solicitous stroking that might be expected of people anxious to influence what might be said about them in a public forum. Most of the people who extended deference to me would never make the news, for any reason.
Also, if they were concerned in any practical way with their reputations, they might reasonably have focused more of their attention on reporters for the print media. They didn't do this. My broadcast coworkers and I were treated as an altogether different category of being than our counterparts in the print media, independent of who actually knew the most about the workings of the world.
The best explanation I have been able to come up with for these attitudes toward on-the-air people involves a quirk in the biological process of imprinting.
Apparently in a variation of the principle by which newly hatched ducklings may regard the first moving thing they see as their mother, viewers seem to regard a person as eminent simply by having looked at him enough on a television screen.
The apparent neural building blocks of this phenomenon would be familiar to anyone who has attended high school. The traditional Big Men on Campus are those who are out there on the field actually playing football, rather than just cheering passively from the stands. The cool people at a dance are those who are actually dancing, rather than just watching nerdishly from the fringes.
Apparently whatever we watch enough, we simply come to consider important.
This phenomenon could explain, among other things, the oddity of people becoming famous for being famous, like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Such individuals have apparently succeeded at becoming virtual people in a virtual-oriented world.
Anomalies in our neurological circuitry could also explain, to some degree, the placid way we tolerate the profound insult implicit in the name of People magazine. If it’s about "people," why aren’t we ever in it? The publishers, oddly, never seem to have to explain that the magazine is about...well, you know, significant people.
Does it really make sense for, say, a Pee Wee Herman to be treated as more of a "somebody" than a dedicated teacher or doctor, when the difference is simply that one has become imprinted upon the general population by virtue of being watched, while the others have not?
The disparity in perceived status between those who are watched and those who do the watching may actually account for some of the more troubling and lesser-understood forces at work in contemporary society. For example, Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham once speculated, with considerable cogency, that perhaps the young man who attempted to assassinate President Reagan might have settled instead for five minutes on the Johnny Carson show.
When we have reached the point where such a speculation has plausibility, we need to reconsider what our society values, and how we have gotten into this position.