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Reality TV is affecting reality, creating a weird world for gossip writers

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; E04

What's happened to my beloved gossip rags?

I used to enjoy peering into the private lives of the rich and famous: who was dating whom, who was having babies, who was feuding, who had a stunning new home.

But the famous (if not necessarily rich) these days are reality TV stars, and their private lives are paradoxically public fodder for their shows. That's left the gossip press completely co-opted, pushing stories that are little more than recaps and promos -- advertising, really -- for television programs.

As a reporter who covers the world of celebrity, I probably mourn the declining quality of tabloid trash -- and fear the arrival of "The Real Housewives of D.C." -- more than most of you. Lately, you see, I'm getting constantly getting tripped up by reality-tainted faux gossip.

Tori Spelling's marriage in trouble? Sounds promising when I spot that headline in my People-Us Weekly-TMZ browsing. Should we keep an eye out for a divorce announcement from the '90s kitsch icon? Ah, whaddaya know: Turns out "Tori Spelling's marriage in trouble" is also the story arc of her new reality series. I think she and Dean might make it after all.

The sons of a beloved TV personality open up about their father's recent death -- poignant, no? But what if the TV personality is a reality star, and the interview runs not soon after his death but months later, just as his death episode is set to air? (To record-setting viewership, natch.) I'm sorry for your loss, sons of Captain Phil Harris of Discovery's "Deadliest Catch," but this ain't news anymore.

That's why, much as I hate to write about them, I'll grudgingly give props to the Kardashians, who actually do real-life things (marrying NBA stars, having babies) that might legitimately qualify as "news" even if, theoretically speaking, the sisters were famous for something other than starring in the reality shows on which said blessed events are about to be showcased.

In the age of Balloon Boy and Michaele Salahi, we've all wondered how much reality TV is affecting reality -- how the desire to create good television may steer a wannabe-celeb's behavior. (Poor Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston. An unromantic public immediately assumed that their surprise engagement was a bid for a TV deal.) But it's also created a crazy hall-of-mirrors effect for the media attempting to cover this world.

In some ways this new breed of celebrity -- more raw, less guarded than the Hollywood elite -- has been good for the tabs. The gossip sheets struck gold last year when they turned up evidence that one Mr. Jon Gosselin, at the time best known as the beleaguered Pennsylvania dad of eight kids on TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8," was cruising Wyomissing area nightspots minus Kate. The media frenzy over their breakup spurred epic ratings, and even after viewership subsided, the Gosselin saga remained popular with gossip consumers. The stories about Jon and Kate may now be bigger than their show ever was.

But I'm convinced reality TV comes out way ahead in this unholy partnership. Take "The Bachelor." The looking-for-love show had been lagging in the ratings for years, until 2007, when Brad Womack scandalized viewers by rejecting all the women competing for his heart. The celebrity rags dove in to investigate what's wrong with that guy? And they haven't left the "Bachelor" beat since, expending the same kind of probing energy on the Jason-Molly-Melissa love triangle or the Ed and Jillian infidelity reports that they once devoted to the watershed breakup of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt.

Bravo's "Housewives" franchise is particularly shrewd about crafting plotlines that spin out parallel faux news stories. Last year, some of the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" hinted on-air that one of their own had a scandalous past. Tri-state newspapers quickly exhumed a 1980s kidnapping-extortion case involving cast member Danielle Staub, and New Jersey ended up being the highest-rated "Housewives" season to date. Who knows if producers schemed behind the scenes to make sure the other wives uncovered Staub's obscure secrets -- but did the media get played here, as well? Was this really a valid celebrity news story -- or just an unpaid ad?

So from the time we learned that Bravo was considering Tareq and Michaele Salahi for the D.C. installment, I steeled myself. I knew there were plenty of seamy allegations surrounding these small-time Northern Virginia socialites; we'd reported some of them over the years. But I resolved we'd get ahead of Bravo's PR blitz and reveal the Salahis' travails on our own schedule, spoilers be damned.

But then, for once, the news got ahead of reality TV -- way ahead. The Washington Post broke the story when the Salahis crashed a White House state dinner in November, months before they'd even been confirmed as cast members, and then their controversial business dealings came to light.

For a while, I vainly imagined that The Post had killed "Real Housewives" by exposing its allegedly glamorous stars as bankrupt graspers.

Instead, judging from the previews, producers embraced the saga of the Salahis' disgrace. In the old days, the showbiz establishment promoted its stars as flawless, godlike creatures -- and then the gossip columns and tabloids could revel in dishing the dirt on them. But in the new show business, reality producers are doing both jobs: building up their stars, but also exposing and embarrassing them.

So what's left for us, the gossip writers? These people are celebrities in their own way, and celebrities are my beat. Many readers are interested in these characters (that, of course, is why the celeb mags have gotten trapped in this cycle), so we'll continue to cover them. When I learned that one of the D.C. "Housewives" was the same woman who, under a different name, sold her story of canoodling with Prince Harry to a British tabloid, I reported it out -- same as I would have if it had been any other rising local socialite. (And then I wondered if that was exactly what Bravo wanted me to do.)

And then there are the Salahis. Launched to notoriety by the White House incident, they certainly gave us plenty of other legitimate news to write about -- massive debts, ugly court battles, a bitter family feud over their winery, a state probe of their charity polo match. They declined to talk to The Post during our investigation last winter but sent an e-mail via a rep blaming several other people by name for their financial problems.

One unlikely name jumped out. It was the college-age daughter of one of the other D.C. "Housewives"; the rep claimed she stole from the Salahis. That was intriguing, I thought -- a sign of an ugly rift between these families brought together by Bravo. Couldn't wait to write about that.

And then I saw an extended preview of the new show. The hot tip evaporated: There, on the screen, Tareq Salahi was making the same accusation to the mother's face, in front of the camera, for the nation to hear. The Salahis weren't giving me a story. Just a preview of coming attractions.

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