SOON TO BE A PH.D. THESIS: When writer David Samuels introduced his panel guests Wednesday — among them, the proprietors of paparazzi agency X17 and American Media editorial director Bonnie Fuller — as "the new editorial staff of the Atlantic," it was a particularly inside joke from the man who wrote the Atlantic's current cover story on Britney Spears and the mechanisms of celebrity gossip. Since the panel was also under the auspices of the NYU graduate school of journalism, where Samuels teaches, the questions about the Britney economy were properly thoughtful, and his own wife, The New York Times television writer Virginia Heffernan, was also on the panel for some gravitas. On the impromptu celebrity videos that populate TMZ and YouTube, she said, "The stars are giving away their best performances in these films. The video of Britney shaving her head — John Cassavetes couldn't have had a better scene." She also contrasted the hyper-posed and retouched shots of, say, Tom Cruise and family in Vanity Fair to the brutally "natural" shots of the celebrity gossip mill.
François and Brandy Navarre of X17 looked the part of Los Angeles visitors, tan and trim, and cheerfully defended their photographers and the level of discourse on their Web site. "People want to see everything," said François. "I tell my guys, 'Shoot the celebrities from the back too, not just the front.'" Brandy said she thought paparazzi style was permeating other aesthetics, pointing to a DKNY ad that she saw as aping the format. She also argued that photographers were doing real reporting by getting out there and asking questions without publicists around that "Oprah and Matt Lauer would be dying to ask....We can get the first interview because we're the only ones there. We just go and do it."
Page Six's Richard Johnson and Fuller were compelled to admit their news gathering was made harder by the round-the-clock competition, but denied there was any wane in interest in prurient gossip itself. The recent death of pagesix.com, Johnson said, was due to being "two or three years too late. We missed the boat." (Indeed. At one point on the panel, he said, "The new thing [in gossip reporting] is going to be video.")