You've probably already read about the fatal accident on Pacific Coast Highway involving Bruce Jenner over the weekend in which a woman, 69-year-old Kim Howe, was killed. You've probably already read the sordid details - how Howe rear-ended a Prius that was inexplicably stopped in the middle of the road, how Jenner's Escalade then rammed into her and pushed her into oncoming traffic, how her Lexus was plowed into by a Hummer H2 moving at full speed. You've probably already read that Jenner was being tailed by the paparazzi.
You probably went straight to the pictures, hoping to see a stunning photo of the wreckage, the crushed Lexus, Jenner's distress, some blood, the body bag.
You probably forgot that there was a dead woman in those photos, and that she was a real person.
And that Jenner, who will forever have to live with the tragedy, is a real person, too.
But maybe - and I hope this is the case - you were like me and found yourself asking, why, in 2015, is this still a story we're reading?
To understand why, you must understand the nature of the paparazzi. First and foremost, paparazzi are freelancers. As any freelancer in any industry knows, you live or die by how many projects you have, and competition is fierce. And competition is never fiercer than among paparazzi jockeying to be the first to get that picture, the salacious one, the scandalous one, the one that shows this actor has clearly fallen off the wagon again or that actress is sporting a baby bump.
As freelancers, the paparazzi don't have the safety net of being part of the salaried staff of a publication or website. They have to hire themselves out on a per-assignment basis, or shop around a sought-after pic and then sell to the highest bidder.
But make no mistake, this is by choice. Because if being a paparazzo is hard work, it's also extremely lucrative work. In 2005, Time ran a story in a special Style & Design issue titled "Shooting Star" chronicling the life of then-top paparazzo Mel Bouzad, who had been the first to get a picture of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Georgia after the much-papped celeb power couple called it quits.
That one shot, claimed Bouzad, netted him $150,000.
To put that in perspective, a single picture earned him the equivalent of three years of income for the average U.S. family.
In an earlier 2004 profile by USA Today, Bouzad's high-end lifestyle was well-documented: His Mercedes-Benz Kompressor, bought brand-new with all the bells and whistles, his high-end apartment in Santa Monica in L.A.'s expensive Westside, the $3,000 navigation system in the Mercedes.
As pricey as Santa Monica is, Bouzad set his sights even higher. The candid paparazzo went on to say in the Times article, "If I get a picture of Britney and her baby, I'll be able to buy a house in those hills." As in the hills behind Sunset Boulevard - Beverly Hills, where the median price for a home starts above $2 million.
But if the excessively large paychecks tabloids cut to paparazzi seem absurd, rest assured, they're not. Publications like People and US Weekly will gladly pay them, because to their bottom line, the pictures are worth it.
Simply put, smut sells, and we feed the machine. It sells, and we, the public, will pay for it every time. Tabloids can afford to cut those checks because the revenue generated by a story they can put a salacious spin on more than makes up for it.
Maybe you freely admit you love gossip, that you love reading trashy tabloids, and that's fine. Maybe you claim to not feed that cycle. Personally, there have been certain articles I've made a point to not click, a picture I didn't look at. We all, hopefully, have our own small, personal standards for who we will and won't be, even if the only person to whom we're reaffirming that is ourselves. As the editor-in-chief of this site, there are stories I've chosen not to cover. There are angles I've chosen not to take. There are pictures I've chosen not to post. There are lines in the sand I've drawn and things I've fought hard against, because they weren't what I wanted my team and the site, to be. I still do.
But I'd be lying if I said I never read a bit of celebrity gossip, and I'd be lying if I said I never read a shocking scoop. And so would you. There's no shame in that, either. It's always been human nature to be drawn to the scandalous, to be curious about the dark things.
Human nature or not, though, I always feel a spark of irritation when I hear people dismiss the hounding of celebrities and the invasion of their privacy with a callous, "Well, they knew what they were getting into. They asked for this."
I'd argue that no one would ask for a life where they couldn't go to a restaurant or step outside their front door without a horde of photographers swarming like vultures outside. I don't know about you, but I start to feel claustrophobic when I'm trying to work my way through a crowded throng of people, let alone if those people have cameras with flashbulbs going off in my face. Imagine having to deal with this every single time you got into your car:
I don't believe you would ask for a life where you have to monitor the grounds of your home and make sure there's no vantage point from which a photographer with a telescopic lens can take pictures of you or your family in the privacy of your yard. Or when you to get away from it all by retreating to the sea, and failing.
Could you imagine of being so. damn. tired. of the cameras constantly in your face that your only recourse when out running errands is to wear a sheet over your face?
I don't think any celebrity expected, when they dreamed of becoming an actor or actress, or they finally got the big break they'd been working so hard for, that it would come in a package deal with paparazzi purposely being rude and aggressive or even downright dangerous in an attempt to get them to lash out in frustration so they can turn that moment into one more scandal piece for a tabloid magazine. Believe it or not, some get into the business not because they want the fame, but simply because they want to do their job - act.
An article from the UK's Stylist sums up the catch-22 in which celebrities find themselves:
An interesting YouTube video shows the Twilight actor Robert Pattinson being followed around Los Angeles by the pack. He begs to be left alone. “You’ve got a million pictures,” he says, “I can’t drive with someone following me around.” They don’t. They keep shooting. The paps’ behaviour is deliberately aggressive, because they want an “interesting” reaction. They want the celebrity to get angry or upset, or better still, violent. (Or better still, dead.) Sienna Miller, who was hounded for years, told The Leveson Inquiry into media practice that photographers would spit at her; eventually she took out an injunction to stop them following her, as did Lily Allen, after a photographer smashed into the back of her car and then started shooting. This is why many celebs are seen as rude, or graceless, and why Hugh Grant threw a tin of beans at one. They have been wound up by paps.
I don't believe you would ask for a life in which your real heartbreaks, your personal tragedies and rawest moments are fodder for public consumption. Where your lowest moments are considered not only fair game, but the fairest game of all.
I don't think you'd ask for a life in which the rest of the world has the right to deal with their addictions or mental illness and psychotic breaks and most embarrassing moments privately and in their own way, but not you. With you, the paparazzi and public feel they have not only an opportunity, but a right to see you at your lowest and most vulnerable simply because you have a famous face. Your rawest nerves exposed, your fragility shattered with the hammer blows of seeing it reflected back to you everywhere you go.
Really, imagine that.
No. No one would ask for that.
But celebrities are not absolved from their own role in the three-ring circus that the modern-day celebrity gossip industry has become. They play as much a part in feeding into the vicious cycle of paparazzi coverage as the public and paparazzi themselves. If they are the victims, it's a victimhood many of them have helped to build.
This has only gotten more pronounced since the rise of the internet and of the psuedo-celebrity, i.e. not the people who become famous through real talent and years of hard work, but the insta-celebs who have become famous because of a sex tape, a reality show, being an internet phenomenon or a rich socialite. Celebrities' brands depend upon public perception, and a celebrity who isn't in the public eye doesn't have a brand, particularly those who are famous simply for being famous. Thus, the paparazzi fill a need. It might be a screwed-up relationship, but it's a screwed-up relationship that usually benefits both parties.
But celebrities have started fighting back, or, at the very least, making the relationship work further to their advantage. The savviest - or, at least, most attention-starved - of these celebrities have accepted this and will work with the paparazzi. It's not uncommon for celebs or their publicists to give paparazzi their schedule or tip them off to where they'll be, thereby ensuring that they can have advance knowledge of the time and place where they'll be snapped. Likewise, in befriending some of the paparazzi, deals are often struck. Celebrities will give the paparazzi what they want at some times in order to gain a bit more privacy in others: "If I agree to let you photograph me at X and Y, then you agree to leave me alone the rest of the time, deal?"
It's a way of smartly controlling the situation, but even so, not all paparazzi will be so respectful or willing to honor those deals. They are ruthless, and they are legion. Understanding this, other celebrities have chosen to turn a bad situation on its head and use the paparazzi to their advantage, a tactic often used by low-key couple Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield.
And we now see more celebrities than ever getting the jump on paparazzi by making deals with publications to reveal their baby's photos, the Holy Grail of celebrity pics, on their own terms. Same for wedding photos. Rather than the paparazzi getting thousands of dollars for a fuzzy snap, the celebrity gets paid for providing the first photos to an outlet.
Still other celebrities are not content to work with the system, instead choosing to work against it to change it. In August of 2013, actresses Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry went to Sacramento to testify in front of California's Assembly Judiciary Committee in support of a bill that would protect the children of celebrities from the paparazzi, dubbed the "pedorazzi" by many celebrities who draw the line where their children are involved.
While testifying, Garner gave a stark description of what life for her children is like when the paparazzi are involved:
Literally every day there are as many as 15 cars of photographers waiting outside our home. In the course of our ordinary day -- trips to school, pediatrician, ballet or the grocery store -- paparazzi swarm. Large aggressive men swarm us, causing a mob scene, yelling, jockeying for a position, crowding around the kids.
My 17-month-old baby is terrified and cries. My 4-year-old says, 'Why do these men never smile? Why do they never go away? Why are they always with us?'
And Garner also brought up an eye-opening point, one that most people never think of when they assume that swarms of paparazzi are just something celebrities have to deal with: Stalkers.
There are violent, mentally ill stalkers who can now get close to my kids by simply following mobs of photographers and blending in -- like the very man who threatened to cut the babies out of my belly. Who was arrested waiting behind our daughter's preschool, standing among the throng of paparazzi. That man is still in prison, but I have no doubt there are others like him still out there.
Because of the testimonies from her and Berry, the state of California passed the bill SB 606. The bill increased both the monetary penalties and jail time that a paparazzo could face for photographing children under 16 without the permission of their parents, or engaging in any activity that "seriously alarms, annoys, torments or terrorizes" children.
The bill also prohibits the paparazzi from lying in wait outside children's schools or social activities, and their parents or guardians can seek restraining orders or lawsuits against paparazzi who don't abide by the rules.
An earlier 1999 law passed ensured against paparazzi trespassing on private property or "constructive" invasion of privacy, such as using telescopic lenses to achieve the same result. And in 2005, that law was strengthened in California to state that paparazzi could not harass, or assault a celebrity, nor chase them in their cars. Likewise, media outlets, websites, and publications could also be sued for running any pictures obtained through illegal means.
But those laws have proven largely ineffective, mostly because to a paparazzo, a potential lawsuit is worth the risk. Simply put, there will always be paparazzi who don't respect their victims or the law, said Michael Weinstein, a prominent celebrity attorney:
The law has not been that effective since it was enacted in 1999. The media companies will have to be more careful in what they do, but I don't think it's going to stop the paparazzi. If they can get a million bucks for a photo, they're gonna do it.
It clearly hasn't stopped the paparazzi from following high-profile couples and their children, especially if those couples, such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, have courted the paparazzi before.
The existing laws must be enforced more often and more consistently. I'd even argue that police officers should be able to arrest paparazzi on the spot if those paparazzi are breaking the protection and privacy laws, especially if children are involved. And if those paparazzi were breaking the law at the behest of a particular publication, that publication also deserves to be punished. One might argue the publication can't control what its hired photographers does, but for a tabloid publication to feign ignorance to the tactics uses is a boldfaced lie, and a lie for which they should be held accountable.
Harsh? Probably. Fair? Probably not. But if I'm weighing the rights of a blameless child or a celebrity going through a tragedy against the rights of a dirty-dealing tabloid, I'll favor the side of empathy and humanity every time. Even if change does not come easily, it has to start somewhere.
That's my line in the sand.