Indulge me for a moment here while I play with a hairbrained experiment.
Stephen King’s recent Q&A with Time Magazine’s Gilbert Cruz is getting a good deal of attention on Reddit and other meme-ranking sites, mostly for his suggestion that CNN try a different approach to connecting hard and soft news:
Someone in the Bush family should actually be waterboarded so they could report on it to George. I said, I didn’t think he would do it, but I suggested Jenna be waterboarded and then she could talk about whether or not she thought it was torture.
King goes on to suggest that Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan should be named Time’s People of the Year as a way of calling attention to the refocusing of mainstream media’s priorities.
I think King’s critique misses the fact that America has been a celebrity culture for a long time, and that it’s always been easier to sell a story with a celebrity hook to it. But a quick search on Google News for the number of stories available about Britney – 12,342 at the moment – was surprising enough to send me back to check some data I’ve been collecting.
For the past few years, I’ve run scripts that poll a number of internet news sites and count the number of stories available on different nations of the world. So I had the data available to very quickly figure out how many stories Google News currently had on different nations of the world, from the US (362,722) to Sao Tome and Principle (84).
If Britney were a nation, she’d be the 60th most reported nation in the world, between Jamaica and Uganda. Lindsay Lohan is receiving far less media attention right now, ranking just below #130, Mozambique. Paris Hilton is marginally less interesting than #90, Ethiopia, though Tom Cruise is just a hair more newsworthy, challenging Yemen for #89.
To break into the top ranks, it helps to run for US President, like Hillary Clinton, who ranks between #24 Singapore and #25 Vietnam. (Not to fear – she beats out Brazil and Saudi Arabia.) Barack Obama is a bit behind, ranking between #30 Switzerland and #31 Netherlands… but far more interesting than #57 Kenya.
While there’s obviously something apples-to-oranges about comparing celebrities and countries, I think there’s some resonance to the idea. Thomas Friedman wrote about “super-empowered individuals” who have the capability to counter-balance nation-states, through their exertion of money, fame, and organizational power. A few weeks ago, I wrote about attention economies and the power of celebrities like Oprah and Bono to redirect the attention associated with their fame to causes.
So perhaps it makes sense – for a while, at least – to run some experiments tracing attention to celebrities as well as to nations. For this, I need some help. I’m using a UN list of nations with populations over 100,000 people; I need a canonical list of celebrities to check against. Should I spider Perez Hilton’s site? Or Forbes’s Celebrity 100? I am celebrity-impaired – please help me figure out what cultural figures are best compared to nation-states.
By the way, Mr. King, waterboarding Jenna Bush isn’t the way to go – there are only 125 stories on her today, putting her below Equatorial Guinea. I hear that Kevin Federline is looking for work – and he ranks between #94 Rwanda and #95 Trinidad and Tobago…