The St. Petersburg Times published a front-page article on 9/11 asking “Why Couldn’t We Look Away.” It referred to news media coverage of the Gainesville preacher who has been in the news everywhere, including several times in LTD.

At least the implication in such a article is that mainstream (legacy, corporate, big) news media still have the control they once had back in their pre-Internet heyday.

But, these are the days of the revenge of what Edward George Bulwer-Lytton called the “great unwashed” or what others call the “hoi polloi.” Southerners, traditionally, are no strangers to such labels. What in the past would have required a massive amount of work or luck, or moderate violence to become known now requires a computer, a camera and access to at least YouTube.

And folks who forever have been forced to watch what the big media defined as entertaining or newsworthy not only get to do that for themselves, they also get to become the “stars.” This rush to attention may result from the novelty of finally having power so long denied to the average person, but at least for now, the “average people” are the ones redefining everything, and traditional media are trying to cope with it.

Newspapers and news media, even great ones, no longer hold the only keys to the celebrity/notoriety closet. They no longer solely control who gets known and how they get known. Anyone can burst out of that closet at any time. And, at this point, traditional news media don’t know if they should always go along for the ride. If they do, they open themselves to criticism for validating what often are self-promoting crackpot ideas and actions. If they don’t, they miss out on carrying something with which everyone seems to be fascinated.

And celebrity and notoriety are open to anyone. You don’t need talent to become a nationally known figure. Just check out any number of “American Idol” contestants who have become widely known for being bad. Jerry Springer and perhaps David Letterman (“stupid human tricks”) may have led the way for common folk to be stars, if only for a moment, but even that required persuading some TV person that you could be gross enough, trashy enough, weird enough, or somehow compelling enough to at least momentarily amuse the growing crowds eager to see how their half lives.

Now we don’t need Springer or Letterman. We don’t even need TV. We need a connection to YouTube and a willingness to outrage, or be weird, or humiliate ourselves. Or, to be fair, we need a remarkable talent (Susan Boyle), or some compelling idea (free hugs). I can’t list all the things that will get you noticed on YouTube, and that’s how things have changed so much. You can do anything that catches the imagination, and to catch the imagination, you don’t have to be famous, or rich, or wealthy, or anything. You can just be you.

You don’t need The New York Times or NBC to anoint you as worthy (or even unworthy). You need a video cam and an idea and a willingness to carry it out. If you are a bigoted small-time preacher with a tiny congregation in a small church tucked away in the middle of Florida, no problem. You don’t have to call the newspaper and announce your intentions to get a lot of cheap publicity by crudely offending people who have shown themselves, at least in the current world environment, easy to offend. You do the political/religious equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater. It’s a sure thing.

What the mainstream press may not get is that it doesn’t matter if they decide to cover it or not. The preacher is already famous. Under these circumstances, the traditional press always comes late to the game, but the big difference in today’s game is that they don’t have to come at all.

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Robert Dardenne

Robert Dardenne, born and schooled in Baton Rouge, reported on newspapers and magazines in Louisiana, Mexico, New York and Washington D.C. for 12 years. With degrees from LSU, the University of Florida, and the University of Iowa, he has taught journalism at Florida, Iowa and the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. He now teaches journalism at USF St. Petersburg. He is co-author of Conversation of Journalism and author of A Free and Responsible Student Press.