BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. This week, tabloid fare was splashed on the front pages of the nation’s great and not-so-great newspapers. Everyone in America now knows the name of Eliot Spitzer. But this convergence of high and low culture was already well under way. The April issue of The Atlantic features Britney Spears on its cover. The fallen pop star seems to be on every cover these days. That’s why her every move is chronicled daily by a horde of some 40 photographers.
But Atlantic readers and some bloggers have decried the decision to put her on the cover of so venerable a journal. The 10,000-word story inside is by reporter David Samuels, who defends the story and the cover. But he says he’s very, very sorry to those who feel betrayed. David, welcome to On the Media. DAVID SAMUELS: Thank you. Yes, I want to take full responsibility for destroying The Atlantic, [BROOKE LAUGHS] 150-year-old pillar of American journalism, and now it’s gone, thanks to me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you know you were so powerful? DAVID SAMUELS: No, but it’s gratifying. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don’t you think that there is something to be said for the idea that celebrity coverage is now the province of everyone, everywhere, at any time? DAVID SAMUELS: Yes, that’s true. At the same time, we know so little about where these pictures come from. You’re talking about a business that’s worth, at this point, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars. And the focus of my piece is an agency called X17, which is the biggest photo agency in Hollywood, and has produced almost all the memorable shots of Britney Spears and many other celebrities.
It was started by a guy named Francois-Regis Navarre, who was the correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, and for the AFP in Los Angeles, who actually covered the Rodney King trial and riots [LAUGHS] for AFP. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it’s fascinating that he came here to cover Rodney King, because that was a story that was put on America’s cultural map by amateur photographers, people with no training who were at the scene capturing some video. I wonder if this sparked the idea that he could train a cadre of just anybody to do it. DAVID SAMUELS: It didn’t, it didn’t. It sparked the idea that he could make a living taking photographs in L.A., but that turned out to be wrong. He tried to do, you know, serious photojournalism about gangs of L.A. and this and that, and he found there was no market for it.
But one day he took a picture of Rod Stewart, I think it was, at Fred Segal, and sold the picture instantly. And suddenly he just said, you know what, this is the market that’s out there and so I’m going to become a paparazzi. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since he’s created this little empire, he is not the principal shooter. He has enlisted a cadre of immigrant labor, mostly all Brazilian men. DAVID SAMUELS: He achieved his dream of ubiquity, which is I think the dream of every paparazzi. It was his brainstorm that he could employ people [LAUGHS] who really didn’t have any background in photography at all because digital cameras were so good, and he could sort of act as the brain for 60 or 70 guys who could be all over L.A. at once, and that way he would never miss a shot.
When I first started researching the story, I decided to focus on this Brazilian team that covered Britney Spears, which, over the course of the last two years, has gotten all these memorable shots - you know, Britney with her head shaved, Britney attacking the jeep with her umbrella - and so I decided to focus on them.
And so, every day I’d go up to the top of Mulholland Drive where Britney’s house is, and I’d meet up with them, and I’d try to talk to them. And I’d say, so where are you from? My name is David. I’m doing a story about whatever. And then they’d say, she’s out, she’s out, she’s out, she’s out! And then they’d all run to their cars and leave me standing there with my notebook like an idiot.
So what I then decided to do was to take a cab up to the top of Mulholland Drive and stand there in the hopes that after they left me standing by myself for about three or four days they’d invite me to ride along with them out of pity, and that did work. And so, you know, that’s how I reported my story. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And one of those who took pity on you was the photographer who apparently took the picture of Britney Spears shaving all her hair off. He told you that something happened on the day she shaved her head, something that made her seem different to the paparazzi who dogged her. DAVID SAMUELS: Well, she sort of was doing this dramatic thing. She was denuding herself of the normal trappings and protections of celebrity, and saying, you know, look at me, I’m out of my mind. The number of paparazzi covering Britney literally, after that day, doubled, and then it doubled again.
In a strange way, I got the sense of this as a relationship. They both exploited her tragedy and served as a life net for her in that they’ve made it impossible for her craziness to go unnoticed. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s so interesting. You illustrate this so beautifully in the piece, a very poignant scene where she apparently is about to drive into a retaining wall. DAVID SAMUELS: Yeah, this was Thanksgiving Day, and we followed Britney Spears to a record store, and I ran down with a number of the paparazzi to a parking garage, where they thought she was going to exit. And she came out through a door, and her eyes were kind of rolling around. She kind of was walking towards the car, and said, happy Thanksgiving, and got into the car and then just drove straight for the wall.
And all the paparazzi at that moment just put their cameras down and they were like, no, no, no, no, no [LAUGHS], you know, and started directing her out of the parking garage. And once she was, you know, the car was properly aligned and it was heading towards the gate, then they all picked up their cameras again and starting shooting. And then she like let them shoot her for four seconds, and then they chased her back up the hill.
They are, in a sense, the substitute for family or friends or whatever it is, and it’s no accident that she ended up now dating one of the photographers that I met. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A cynical person might say that parasites don’t survive if their host doesn’t survive. DAVID SAMUELS: That’s true, but that job is a very, very hard job, and they are providing a news product that consumers want. The idea that the paparazzi are responsible for the tenor of coverage of Britney Spears or the fact that all these photographs are out there is clearly absurd. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it just me or does the coverage of the New York Governor remind you a little of Britney shaving her head? DAVID SAMUELS: Yeah, it does, in the sense that he is a person who in one moment has sort of been transformed into his opposite. And it’s a good lesson to beware of the packaging of public figures, whether they’re politicians or pop stars. And in a way, I think that paparazzi coverage is a good thing. If Eliot Spitzer was subject to this kind of coverage, we probably wouldn’t be so surprised that he was hanging out in the Mayflower Hotel. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much. DAVID SAMUELS: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Samuels is a reporter. His collection of work titled Only Love Can Break Your Heart will be out next week, by The New Press.