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Volume 3, Number 8
August, 1998

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

by David Mandell

The late artist Andy Warhol predicted that everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame. Warhol would have enjoyed the nineties. Thanks to cable television, talk radio, and the internet, there is an insatiable demand for news. Nothing satisfies the media appetite for material more than one hit wonders who crave their fifteen minutes. From sports, law, entertainment, politics, and journalism there is no end to lower end celebrities braying for attention and a willing media eager to provide it. These shooting stars fade quickly, lasting long enough only to have the proverbial cup of coffee. Conflict in Bosnia or the Persian Gulf can wait while the news anchors interview Monica Lewinsky's ex-lawyer for the tenth time. Welcome to journalism nineties style.

This past year has been absolutely grand for one hit wonders. The legal profession has been especially generous in supplying soon forgotten celebrities. None will ever surpass Monica Lewinsky’s former lawyer, William Ginsburg, in hunting down a television camera or an open microphone. The Los Angeles medical malpractice lawyer had his only previous "brush with greatness" when he represented Liberace's physician. When hired to represent Monica Lewinsky, Ginsburg was anointed as the celebrity de jour. On one Sunday morning alone, he did five television interviews. Saying nothing newsworthy, he traipsed from studio to studio.

As he mugged for the cameras, shouting "get back" at the photographers, Ginsburg provided his only memorable commentary. Ginsburg's fifteen minutes expired when Lewinsky's father read his bizarre letter to a legal journal and replaced him with two experienced criminal defense lawyers. If What's My Line ever returns to television look for Ginsburg to be its first guest.

From Massachusetts came Judge Hiller Zobel who presided over the "nanny" murder trial. Thanks to Court TV, an international audience watched a homicide trial in which a young au pair from Britain was convicted by a jury of the murder of an infant. Zobel, an obscure lower level judge, relished the sudden limelight. Rather than simply issuing a written decision he summoned the television cameras and an internet audience to watch him overturn the murder conviction. The judge became an overnight celebrity, especially in Britain, when he ordered the defendant's release and sent her to waiting television interviews. Zobel soon returned to the anonymity of his criminal court, overseeing his usual parade of shoplifters and drunk drivers. Like Bill Ginsburg he will always be able to tell his grandchildren about the time he was on television.

The academic world produced Dean John Feerick of Fordham Law School. The unknown dean was selected to arbitrate the grievance filed by Golden State Warrior Latrell Sprewell who was expelled for a year by the NBA after choking his coach. In a baffling decision, Feerick ordered Sprewell reinstated and supported much of his grievance. Feerick became the most famous dean in America and also a poster child for everything wrong with higher education.

Modern journalism has created the celebrity reporter. With multi-million dollar salaries they jet to the latest war zone in their best banana republic safari suits. The journalists who reach the pinnacle provide an irresistible lure for those consigned to local school boards and sewer bond hearings. In the summer of 1998 a new crop of journalists achieved brief fame but not fortune. For these journalists and their employers, fifteen minutes in the limelight turned out to be the worst fifteen minutes of their careers. A staffer on the New Republic magazine became famous when Forbes on line magazine exposed him as a fiction writer. The New Republic fiasco soon spread to the Boston Globe where an honored columnist admitted to fabricating characters. CNN, in the face of outrage from Vietnam veterans, admitted that a much promoted special about American air missions in Vietnam was inaccurate. CNN's reporter, Peter Arnett, forgotten and ignored since his stint in Baghdad during the Gulf War, received the attention he sought ever since those glory days atop the Hilton. Arnett's defense, that celebrity reporters just read what the producer puts on a TelePrompTer, brought ridicule from his colleagues. Look for CNN to give Arnett a one way ticket back to Baghdad.

Entertainment offers more one hit wonders than any other profession. The frenzy around stars turns to ridicule or indifference soon enough. The New Kids On The Block, once the dream of every thirteen year old girl, are now the old guys at the casino lounge. Stars who once held court at Morton's in Los Angeles are lucky to be parking cars a year later.

Meanwhile the fifteen minute clock keeps ticking.
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