Jodie Foster is gay and Lance Armstrong is a doper. These are the large stories of the day, at least, the stories that people in the media are having serious palpitations about. Of course, there is no news here.
Foster has lived openly with a partner and their adopted children, then broken up just as publicly. Indeed, her coming out at the Golden Globes was, in fact, a coming-out to say that she had long ago come out.
Armstrong has been meticulously investigated, found guilty, and stripped of all his awards, and reputation. He’s now pretty much the last word in steroids. But he is taping with Oprah for a much anticipated show on which he will admit that he’s a doper.
Two fabulous non-stories whatsoever, and everybody in the media is gaga, intent on reporting that … Jodie is gay and Lance is a doper. This is the news.
Except this is really not the news. Rather, what’s going on here is our fascination — that is, our fascination as media people — with how we are used and manipulated. In part, this may be because we are drawn to people who seduce and use us. But it’s admiration, too: people like Foster and Armstrong are the ultimate media people, more adept at playing the media than even we are in the media.
For media people, it is almost more interesting to us when stars avoid being the story than when they are the story. When they hide in plain sight, when they baldly lie, that’s talent.
For Foster and Armstrong, there has been, on our part, a kind of self-censorship. Not to protect them, per se, but to protect the audience. We believed that the audience was not quite ready to know what we knew. Rather, both Foster and Armstrong had such strong public images and followings, that we in the media were not taking any chances with a rude unloading of the truth. That’s media power — when we think our audience trusts our subjects more than it trusts us. But we are not resentful about this or, frankly, even itching to tell the truth. Instead, we are admiring of how certain people commanded our restraint.
Foster is now retailing the obvious as reinvention. For much of her career, she developed a reputation as an actor above the fray, a fiercely artistic performer not concerned with, well, the media. This hauteur helped her navigate the gay story: she was simply too good for that. But now she is an actress in her 50s, facing the same issues of all actresses in their 50s, heterosexual or not. But her Golden Globes coming-out could change that nicely. She’s used her long-time avoidance of attention on the gay issue to gain attention now. And we’re delighted to see her do it.
From the media view, Lance Armstrong on Oprah’s couch is a Houdini moment. Can he get out of the chained and locked box of his vast public disgrace? Clearly, he would not have picked Oprah for his confession if he wasn’t bent on trying. This is confession as rehabilitation. The headline will be that he’s admitted his crime. But the real issue is whether he can escape the punishment. It really doesn’t seem possible. Surely, none of us in the media is media-savvy enough to imagine quite how he’d emerge from such universal opprobrium.
But if he does, if he is able to manipulate even a little forgiveness, to engender a bit of curiosity as to the normal human failings and higher aspirations that might have led him down the road to such disgrace, we’ll cheer him on.
That’s a story.