Brief Thoughts on Jesse James’ Nightline Interview

27 05 2010

As is probably evident, I’ve gotten quite wrapped up in the Sandra Bullock/Jesse James scandal and its coverage in the gossip media (as well as the “legitimate” media). So of course I watched James’ first public interview on Nightline , though on DVR the day after the actual airing. The post-scandal “apology tour” is a facet of celebrity publicity that fascinates me. Scandal (or at least some level of personal drama) has long been a crucial part of celebrity culture, and audience fascination of what goes on “behind-the-scenes” of a star’s life often eclipses interest in his or her public performances. In addition to consuming the details of the actual fall from grace, the star’s attempt to rebuild his or her shattered image has become a central part of the cycle of scandal. We watch them rise, we watch them fall, we watch them attempt to put it back together (and maybe wait with baited breath for them to fall again?).

The apology tour is a carefully managed publicity moment that is an attempt to regain control of the story and the star’s image. It’s a chance for the star to answer for his or her transgressions, but usually in a safe and controlled media environment with publicists/managers/agents present to help control the presentation of the image. Consider Tiger Woods’ first apology via press conference. He read a statement and took no questions. Ultimate control that ended up backfiring because it seemed disingenuous, largely because of the unwillingness to give up any control. Answering questions in an interview, like James did, gives more of a sense of lack of control on the part of the star, even though we can be sure publicity teams were present and consulted with the reporter prior to the interview. But it seems more authentic, unscripted and uncontrolled. Though stars can go to far into uncontrolled presentation…witness Britney’s disastrous Dateline NBC interview with Matt Lauer from 2006 (read some of the interview here and some of the mocking it received here

Britney's Lack of Control in 2006 Dateline Interview

Even though I think ABC News reporter Vicki Mabrey was tougher on James than most typical post-scandal celebrity interviewers, I think she had to be in order for the apology to work. And I think James and his people knew it. He’s the villain in this scandal, and given popular support of Sandra Bullock combined with existing preconceptions about him (confirmed by this scandal), James certainly had some explaining to do. He did a fair job, came off not only as repentant but also clearly took all the blame for himself. Even though he claims that his troubled and abusive childhood is at the root of his problems, he consistently used language of personal responsibility. Most importantly for this moment, in no way blamed anything on Sandra Bullock. She was perfect, their marriage was perfect, and he threw it all away. For me, this part of the interview made him seem more sympathetic. I’m still firmly Team Sandra, but not entirely unsympathetic to Jesse James at this point.

Jesse James interview on Nightline

That said, the most interesting part of the interview for me was his discussion of the rumors that he is a racist and the Nazi salute picture. This did not go quite as well for him. I can’t embed a clip because I still only have the free account on wordpress that limits me to certain video sites and was unable to find this particular clip on any of them. However, you can see this moment on the Jezebel discussion of the interview here in the second video clip on the page.

He’s sticking with the “it was just a joke” and “photo taken out of context” explanations for the Nazi salute photo. Mabrey pushes him a bit, saying that some people don’t even see a Nazi salute as funny. Though he agreed with that idea, he seems to think that saying “doesn’t have a racist bone in [his] body” gives him a pass on the photo. And Mabrey gives it to him. Not very satisfying. But he did say something that stuck with me, though probably not for reasons he intended. In the clip, he says that the photo was only a really big deal because it came out in the wake of the infidelity scandal. If the photo had surfaced months before when none of the cheating stories were circulating, he “would have released a statement…People would have murmured about it” but it would have quickly gone away.

The thing is, I think he’s right. Celebrity culture and gossip media are so whitewashed that they don’t really know how to deal with race other than to ignore it. There have definitely been race related scandals (Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant immediately comes to mind), but they don’t take hold the way sex scandals do. Maybe it’s the salacious details involved in a sex scandal that makes them more appealing to media producers and audiences. But I think more accurately celebrity media (like a lot of American culture) just doesn’t want to talk about race.

Look at how they basically ignored the fact that Sandra Bullock adopted an African-American baby in favor of the typical “Baby Joy!” sort of perspective. They want to pretend they are open-minded and accepting, but not talking about it is not quite the same. Additionally, the fact that the overwhelming majority of celebrities regularly featured in the media are white is another way of erasing race or refusing to talk about it. But when presented with a clear opportunity to talk about it with the Jesse James photo scandal, it still didn’t really happen. James’ scandalous picture was used more as further evidence that he was bad for Sandra Bullock rather than opening a real critical dialogue about race and racism in America.

To simply dismiss James as a racist is not useful. Nor is giving him a pass because it was “just a joke.” Nor is ignoring it because the sex scandal is juicier. Particularly in light of all the racist rhetoric and images coming out of certain segments of the Teaparty movement, I think this could have been an important moment for public discussion. Not that the celebrity media industry is particularly interested in critical dialogue, but I wonder what such media would look like if race mattered as much as sex (and I mean sexuality or sexual behaviors…the celebrity media’s gender issues are a whole different post!).

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