American Scandal

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Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.

Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.

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Host of "Disgraceland" on the Media and Celebrity Meltdowns | 5

Tue, 18 May 2021 09:00

The press has a long, troubled relationship with celebrities, from Marilyn Monroe, to Tupac Shakur, to Britney Spears. The paparazzi are often relentless, and media coverage can be vicious. Which raises a question: Does the press bear responsibility for celebrities' meltdowns? In this special interview, Lindsay chats with Jake Brennan, an expert on the topic, and the host of the podcast "Disgraceland."

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From Wondry, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scandal. Today we have a special interview about the media and its troubled relationship with artists and celebrities. Since the founding of the United States, the press has been a central pillar of our democracy. The freedom of the press is guaranteed by the US Constitution and the news media called the 4th Estate, as often said to be as important as the three branches of the federal government. But while the press is guided by idealistic principles, sometimes the media doesn't live up to its own high standards. News stories can gain steam not because they serve the public's interest, but because they're good for business. It's a problem that can be especially true in the case of celebrity news, and sometimes the consequences can be deadly. My guest today is Jake Brennan. He's the host of Discrease Land, a podcast about musicians who've had trouble with the law. Brennan also co founded Double Elvis Productions, a company with a slate of podcasts about entertainment, crime, and American history. Brennan has spent a lot of time discussing the problematic relationship between celebrities and the media. It's a big part of the story about Brittany Spears, the pop star who's currently the subject of a heated debate about mental health in the press. And in his new two part series on Discrease Land, Brennan considers the media's problematic relationship with a notorious B.I.G., a legendary hip hop artist who died tragically. In our conversation today, we'll discuss celebrities who've seen their lives unravel in the face of predatory coverage by the media. We'll also look at who ultimately bears responsibility for these meltdowns. Here's our conversation. American scandal is sponsored by the new ABC drama Alaska Daily, when an indigenous woman goes missing in Alaska. It sparks new questions about other missing and murdered indigenous women. And that's where the thrilling new ABC drama Alaska Daily begins, and where it's headed, will have you on the edge of your seat. Two time Academy Award winner Hillary Swank stars as Eileen, a veteran reporter, who joins a team of local journalists working to bring the truth to light. From Academy Award winning screenwriter Tom McCarthy, Alaska Daily premieres Thursday, October 6th on ABC, and streams next day on Hulu. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes, and conspiracy theories together, and we'd love for you to join us. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Jake Brennan, welcome to American scandal. Stoked to be here, man. Thanks for having me. Your podcast, Disc Race Land, deals with musicians getting in trouble, getting in trouble with the law, getting in trouble with drugs or alcohol, and getting in trouble with the press. Recently, there has been a growing conversation about how the media covers celebrities, and sometimes harmful effects, these celebrities encounter. Recently, that conversation has come to focus on Britney Spears, especially after the New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, came out in February. Let's set the table a bit for those people who haven't followed her career very closely. Could you help us with the broad strokes of the story? How did Britney Spears get started? And what's happened to her more recently? Sure, Britney Spears started as a child performer from the Deep South. She ends up on the Mickey Mouse Club, and that really becomes her breakout moment that lasts for a couple years. After that, she heads to New York, sort of with her parents driving the sort of talent train, and she hooks up with a record label. And her career launches when she's still a teenager, and she explodes. The fame is massive. She becomes a multi platinum selling artist fairly quickly. And of course, she then becomes a darling of the paparazzi. And it all kind of goes haywire from there, and I know we're going to get into the more specifics of it. But the documentary you've mentioned, it really gets into sort of the media's culpability regarding Britney Spears, and all that has gone wrong with her since her fame, her explosion. Well, sticking with Spears for a moment, she's currently under a state of conservatorship. That's a rare and kind of tortured legal status. Can you explain what that is? Yes, sure. Conservatorship means that she has somebody appointed to her by the courts who makes all of her decisions for her that an adult normally would make. So everything regarding her life, particularly her finances. And right now, the person driving that is her father, and there's a lot of tension there. And the documentary has sort of shown a light on that tension and has forced the question to the public, you know, is this warrant? Does she actually need to be under conservatorship? Now, this legal status is usually reserved for those persons who really cannot make decisions for themselves. So persons with Alzheimer's or other disabilities, how did Britney Spears, a celebrity and maybe a tortured one, but certainly an adult who has her own faculties with her, how did she become a subject to this? Well, as Britney is sort of at the top of her game as an artist, she's going through a very public meltdown. And of course, she has children, and she's seen as being somebody who can't basically parent in a way that normal parents would. And that's where the conservatorship comes into play. And frankly, you know, it's interesting because it's a very strange dynamic where, like you said, this is something that's reserved for people who don't have faculties who can't make these decisions on their own. And it strikes me as somebody who watched the documentary and has read about this as being very odd that we're not really given the reasoning what the justification for this. And there has to be something there. And that piece of it isn't getting discussed. The fact that Britney is a victim here, at least at face value, we have to take it like that. She appears to be somebody who does, you know, she's young, she's, you know, approaching middle age, she seems like she's, she's able to work, she's able to generate tremendous amounts of money still. So why then can't she have control of it? And why can't she make decisions as a normal adult would? And we don't know that answer. Well, what went wrong for Britney Spears is certainly that question points to what went wrong in the media. Her very public breakdown was made public because of the media. What kinds of criticisms do you think are being made about how the media might be responding to what happened at all? Britney Spears happens at a time when sort of paparazzi industry is at its apex. It's huge. And Britney Spears meltdown, I should say happens. And at a certain point, they start fueling each other. And Britney's behavior, who knows exactly where that's coming from. She has her own demons. There's truly something there like something underlying that is driving her to act in the way that she's acting. But you can also make the case that the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, the fact that they're following her everywhere, they're staking her out, they're not allowing her to live her life the way that any normal person would, even a normal celebrity is driving her behavior in some ways as well. And then on the other side of this, you know, the paparazzi, it's a money making industry, I mean, the press, the media is obviously they exist to make money. The nature of celebrity helps sell newspapers and magazines and generates internet clicks. And you can't ignore the fact that sitting right there next to the media is the general public who has a massive appetite for these stories. In this particular case, the flame out story of Britney Spears. Well, that's interesting because the flame out happened a while ago and she's been in conservatorships since 2008. So what happened that suddenly has this appetite for her story? Well, sort of in the background in the last couple of years, there's been this ongoing support for Britney online on Instagram, on Twitter or her fans, basically. I mean, Britney Spears, let's not forget she's an artist regardless of what you think of the music she makes or, you know, what she does as a performer. She is an artist and she has a massive audience and she's the type of artist who keeps drawing audience to her with future generations. And there is sprung up around, around Britney, it hasn't gone unnoticed that she's in conservatorship and she's not out there living her life the way that most artists and most adults are. So this ground swell of support has sort of happened organically, this sort of free Britney movement. Let Britney be Britney. Why don't we let Britney out of conservatorship? Why is she even in conservatorship? There's arguments being made that if she were a man, this would not be happening to her. As that ground swell is happening earlier in 2021, the New York Times releases documentary. It's distributed through Hulu on this exact situation. And once that happens, this whole thing comes to light and people start trying to lay blame or sort out the blame, I should say. And a lot of the people trying to figure this out are the same people who are writing stories about Britney Spears 10, 15 years ago when this is all popping off. So there's sort of like the documentary happens and we can't help but as the American public would feel bad for Britney Spears, we can't help but wonder who's to blame. But at the same time, I think the media needs to look into the mirror and I think we as the media consuming public need to look into the mirror as well. It certainly wasn't the free Britney movement alone that found this documentary in this story captivating. Britney herself seems to be in social media kind of almost obliquely in secret code talking to her fans. But more than that, why do you think her story is striking a nerve now politically and culturally? That's a really good question. I think there's an appetite right now for people who are being victimized. I think as a country, as a nation, we have a lot of empathy right now. I think somebody like Britney Spears for all the power she had as a top selling artist seems particularly vulnerable. If you watch her on social media, she seems to me highly vulnerable. And I think people just see an injustice being done and they want it to be righted. And you also layer into this the fact that many, many people identify with Britney Spears and we can't overlook the power of artistry in stardom and how it speaks to people and how it can actually motivate them. Is this targeting of women in particular in gossip media and their sexuality and their relationships? Is this an embedded misogyny in the media? I would say so. And the case of Britney Spears definitely so. I mean, we look at other young male child stars and actors who came up and they were not as sexualized as Britney Spears. I mean, Justin Timberlake wasn't treated the same way that Britney Spears was. And I think there is a sort of it's this real, lecherous kind of curiosity about young women, especially attracted women. And this is not new. This has been going on forever. I've recently wrote an episode for another show on Marilyn Monroe and it's like, you know, these stories do not stop because of this appetite that I think is kind of lecherous in a lot of ways. Well, yeah, certainly as you mentioned Britney Spears is not the first woman to face this kind of coverage. But I wonder, you know, if you've been studying it in modern times and not so modern times has the relationship between the media and celebrity always been so adversarial and exploitative exploitative to various degrees adversarial not as much. It's definitely more high watt glaring and cutthroat now than it was right now. The media is like it's never been before. It's so big. This massive. And when this thing is happening to Britney Spears, the breakdown. This is right around the time where the blogosphere is really growing where social media is sort of like in its infancy and starting to explode and media is starting to get bigger and faster. And with that comes more demand and more money to be made. So the timing of what happened to her was a unique time. And this is an interesting coincidence as well. When she was in the midst of her public breakdown, it was happening at the exact same time that Amy Winehouse was becoming a breakout star in America. So all the sort of ins and outs to all these celebrity TV programs that were showing Britney in these paparazzi shots were being soundtracked by Amy Winehouse's song Rehab. And then we start to see what happened to Amy Winehouse a couple years later with her own sort of downfall and her own spat with the paparazzi. So it was a real interesting sort of coincidental leap there. What if your family was the victim of a home invasion or you woke up in the morgue or you were seriously injured miles from help? What would you do? This is actually happening, asks our listeners this very question while we bring you captivating real life stories of trauma and perseverance. This is actually happening brings listeners extraordinary true stories from the people who lived them. You'll hear stories about conflict, turmoil or threats that dramatically alter the course of someone's life. Each episode is an exploration of the human spirit and how survivors manage to overcome hardship and move on with their lives. Even thriving afterward. The new season of this is actually happening is available ad free only with Wondry Plus. And if this new season isn't enough, you can listen to more than 120 exclusive episodes available only to Wondry Plus subscribers. Join Wondry Plus on Apple podcasts or on the Wondry app. When you mentioned Amy Winehouse, she had her own troubled relationship with the press. Tell me a little about her story. She's kind of hit the scene with this incredible Mark Ronson produced record right around the time that Britney Spears is having her meltdown and this record is it's hard for us in America to understand just how big this record was in the UK. It was massive. And as is the case with most of these musicians who end up falling under the harsh glare of the paparazzi Amy Winehouse has serious underlying issues. She's in addition to being an incredible artist and songwriter and singer and melodicist just extremely talented, lauded by everyone from Tony Bennett to most deaf. She's just incredible. And she's blemic. She has trouble with depression. She's ill equipped and too young to deal with the fame that fall that comes down on her. And fame and celebrity in the UK is different than it is here. It's almost more intense, even though it's a smaller country in England because it's so concentrated. And they treat pop stars differently over there than they do here for some reason. And she ends up having addiction problems just to put it mildly. She's addicted to crack and she's an alcoholic. And she cannot deal and she ultimately ends up joining one of the most notorious clubs of all time. And that's the 27 club and she ends up dying too young. So Amy Winehouse's story is a bit more tragic than Britney Spears. But I'm wondering in both the medium might be culpable for Amy. How was it? It's tough for me to say being being an American. The coverage over here, you know, it was exactly what you would think. It was the celebrity TV shows. It was, you know, the celebrity magazines. I think in London, like I mentioned earlier, it's a bit different celebrity culture over there. It's like I said, a lot more intense. To the extent that they're more culpable than American journalists, comparatively to Britney Spears or whatever, it's tough to say. I mean, definitely culpable. You have to know Amy Winehouse was living her addictions so loudly, so out in the open. I just can't imagine being a journalist and not understanding what I would be doing at the time. You know, as a member of the poperatis or a member of a tabloid newspaper covering Amy Winehouse and sort of, you know, similarly to Britney Spears, there's this sort of mutual back and forth that's going on with Amy Winehouse. She's sort of flaming out. She's driving the media and the media is driving the flame out as well. So I think there's absolutely some culpability there, but I don't want to be here casting stones when you're when you're in the middle of these things as they're happening and as they're taking off. Sometimes it's really tough to have perspective and understand exactly what's going on. Well, you like me are often not in the middle of things when podcasters that look back and tell stories from history, but I'd love to hear a little bit of an origin story. So podcaster to podcaster, tell me how disgrace land came to be. Well, I was fascinated with podcasts and this is about four years ago and I started milling about trying to figure out, you know, okay, I'm getting older. I'm going to need to figure out what I want to do in my life here sooner or later. And I knew I wanted to tell stories and start a podcast and specifically tell music stories because that's where I come from. I come from the music world. I grew up in a musical family. So did my wife, both of our dads are in the music industry. So I grew up around a lot of these stories, or at least hearing them secondhand. And I knew I wanted to tell these sort of fascinating edge of your seat music stories. And I also knew I needed a hook to make it interesting and make it kind of cut through. And that's where I decided to combine my love of true crime with music. And once I kind of got that hook, I knew I had something there and then disgrace land was born. Well, we're both podcasters. So let's investigate what our responsibility in that medium is because podcasting it to might have some rules and is certainly a commercial enterprise for us, for instance. What do you think about the state of podcasting and its relationship with truth, especially in true crime? I think it's tough to generalize. I can speak from my experience as a podcaster who deals with true crime and from the jump from the get go from when I launched, I knew that my show was not going to be a journalist to show. It's just not and I was outright and and very open about that. I am not a journalist. I don't know how to come from a journalist background. You know, I am telling a story in the same way that a filmmaker would tell a story about an actual living person or dead person was a real person. And I'm dramatizing it in some cases, a true story in the same way that a filmmaker would for film. It's just a different medium. I think there's a lot of great journalistic podcast me that goes without saying, but I think for the industry right now, it's pretty wide open. And the medium is still figuring itself out. We haven't really settled on, you know, what are the sort of four types of storytelling we're going to have for the next hundred years. We haven't really, you know, look at film. I mean, I think the godfather is the first truly great film. That doesn't happen until about 70 years into the history of the medium. And I think in podcasting, we haven't yet had the first truly great podcast. We're all just trying to figure it out. I'm trying to do it as authentically and honestly as I can. And I know a lot of others are including yourself. Well, let's talk about your podcast disgrace land in particular. You've looked at stories where the media may have been implicated in matters of life or death. And especially problematic case involved two poxia core and then torus B.I.G. remind us of their stories. Who were they and what happened to them? Two poxia cure and notorious B.I.G. both hip hop stars who came to prominence in the 1990s. They were really close friends. They were both very similar and also very different in a lot of ways. And they both respected each other because of their differences. Two poxia cure was raised by a Phoenishie care, his mother who was a black panther and notorious B.I.G. was raised by his mother who was a Jamaican immigrant in Brooklyn. And you know, biggie by comparison to two pox had more of a sort of, I don't want to call it middle class, but it was it was closer to middle class than it was straight working class. Where two poxia cure was raised amongst actual revolutionaries. So they both had in them these different things that each respected. Two pox hits his career takes off first. He and biggie befriended each other. Like I said, there's sort of a mutual admiration society there. And then two poxia cure is going to a recording session that Biggie smiles is at in Times Square. And he's robbed and shot five times. And he lives. This is at a time where he's on trial for sexual abuse of a young woman. He survives his wounds. And he implicates from an interview he doesn't jail that he thinks that the notorious B.I.G. and Sean Puff Daddy Combs, who ran the label that Biggie smolzes on had something to do with his shooting. And it just sets off this rivalry that you know for the ages that had disastrous results for both of them. Well, this rivalry and the disastrous results, of course, both musicians were murdered. It might not have gone the way it did. Why did this rivalry get so much attention? And perhaps what was the media's role in fueling it? Well, at the time in the 90s, it was so much different. Hip hop wasn't yet the dominant cultural musical force that it is now. Rock and roll wasn't completely pushed to the margins as it is now. So a lot of hip hop wasn't covered in the mainstream press unless it was negative. And you know, along around this time you start to see lots of articles about gangster rap being dangerous for kids, et cetera, et cetera. Conversely, the magazines like the source and vibe magazine that covered hip hop didn't have the readerships that these, you know, that the Washington poster rolling stone magazine had. But when they started covering this rivalry, their readership explodes. And they start almost those two magazines in particular vibe magazine and the source start to have this sort of back and forth with write ups about Biggie and Tupac were both are, if not accusing or insinuating stories about the other, the sort of anti is being upped in these different ways. And it I knew it when it was happening and I was just a young kid I could see it and just knowing, you know, I loved gangster rap and just knowing what was going on. I was like, this is going to end bat. So there was again this tension in the media between journalism and and profit hearing that might have inflated the rivalry. I think so 100% and the circumstances were very different because like I said hip hop was being covered differently than it is now. So the stakes were higher. And I think, you know, as is case with Britney Spears in the media culpability there, there have been journalists who have come out who have said, you know, we probably could have handled this better. But at the time when you know when this is all happening, it's the same thing with Britney Spears when you caught up in the zeitgeist and it's being thrown at you daily, you almost don't even realize as a consumer that it's happening. And I can't imagine what it's like as a journalist in that situation where you're just trying to keep up with the story that is escalating rapidly. You know, a similar thing with, you know, it's not apples to apples, but what's going on with Kanye West right now like would any of us be surprised if in five years there was a documentary lamenting the downfall of Kanye West in 2020 2021. I think no, not at all, but right now we're not thinking along those terms. You mentioned that at this time in the 90s that rap does not have the ubiquitous cultural hegemony that it does now, and that probably means that it was seen as a much more urban and that's code for black music. What do you think that did to the media coverage? You know, this is actually this article by Malcolm Gladwell on two pox secure and the one he was writing for the Washington Post and it's in the business section. Because that's where Gladwell wrote and it couldn't get into the arts section or into the local section. So there was almost like they were ignoring the stories. The mainstream press was like I said, unless it was negative coverage and there was that famous New York Times magazine cover with I believe it's two pox and Snoop and should night and it's all about gangster rap and you know it's for the artist. It's great because they're going to sell records, but you know the implication or just outright statement that this stuff is bad for your suburban white kids. I mean that was always there. That was baked into the cake of the mainstream coverage of hip hop. So what extended had to do with race? You know I'm not going to sit here and specifically cast stones, but this is America and race is always playing a role when it comes to popular music and it has for most of the 20th century. You mentioned something interesting that gets me thinking about celebrity coverage even when it's negative because it's not just a media that has a financial interest in celebrity coverage. The celebrities themselves certainly have a significant interest in getting press home any press. They have publicists and media teams whose entire job is to get them coverage even if that means doing something that leads to sensational headlines. But because when they're famous they can make more money. How does that feed this loop? It totally feeds it. And I think with somebody like Britney Spears it's on record. She had publicist calling paparazzi and alerting them to where Britney Spears is going to be so she could get coverage. So there's that with somebody like two pox secure. Two pox was a sort of a mastermind publicist in his own right. I don't think two pox actually believed Biggie Smalls had something to do with his shooting at Quad Studios. But I think inherently instinctively he knew that it was going to fuel the press and it was going to lead to record sales. And I think he chased that 100% I believe that. So there's a mutual benefit here in the media's coverage of the celebrities and the celebrities growing fame from the media coverage. But where is the line of responsibility is there one. Yeah, I do. I do think there is a line of responsibility for sure. But like I said though it's tough to say I think I think as consumers you know I don't read us weekly I don't I never have I've never read the tabloids I don't buy the New York Post or the Boston Harold I never have so you know it just doesn't interest me I don't do it out of any sort of moral obligation. But I do think there are things that are more interesting than celebrities spouting off at each other. But I think that I might be in the minority there now that now this is coming from somebody as a show called disgrace land and rights about rock stars acting like feral narcissistic animals so take everything I say with a grain of salt I'm just trying to present it in a way that hasn't been presented before in a way that interests me and excites me. And I'm looking for stories that are a little bit sort of off the grid and not as well known. But it's tough for me to sit here and cast judgment even on members of pop of the paparazzi who are you know working class guys and girls and they're out there making a living and like I said they're caught up in the moment in the zeitgeist of this and it's a train that's moving and I think it's hard for everybody involved at the moment to have perspective what's happening. Well I think I think you're right every one of these groups involved is a human at you know at base and I have instincts and motivations that they probably don't understand. But I wonder if I could get you to think about maybe some advice to the consuming public that they might think about when they do consume media that might be harmful. My advice would be to know your history and to dig into the history of celebrity a little bit and see how this has nothing is new everything is sort of happened in one way or another in the past before just the situations change in the circumstances have changed and when you start to understand how things have unfolded in the past to people like fatty airbuckle or marijuana and row or even curcobain. When these things pop up in the now they become more identifiable as being detrimental and harmful as opposed to just being this like sugar high that we're all getting off on and there's real people there who are being hurt. Well Jake Brennan thank you so much for taking time to speak with me today on American scandal. Thanks for having me I really really appreciate it. That was my conversation with Jake Brennan the host of the podcast disgrace land you can hear his new episodes about the notorious B.I.G beginning May 11th. Next on American scandal in the 1930s the mental health industry was still in the dark ages mental assilums were crowded and filthy and patients were treated like animals but a doctor named Walter Freeman had a radical idea. He believed that a single procedure could revolutionize medicine helping scores of Americans who were trapped in these sysilums. Freeman was a pioneer of the lobotomy and he became famous across America but as he performed more and more of these procedures he grew reckless and as the damage piled up he earned enemies who would do everything they could to stop him. From one of these this is the episode five of five of the land's arms from American scandal in our next series in the 1930s the mental health industry was still in the dark ages mental assilums were crowded and filthy and patients were treated like animals but a doctor named Walter Freeman had a radical idea. He was a pioneer of the lobotomy and became famous across America but he grew reckless and as the damage piled up he earned enemies who would do anything to stop him. American scandal is hosted edited and executed produced by me Lindsey Graham for airship audio editing by Molly Bach music by Lindsey Graham our senior producer is gay driven. Executive producers are Stephanie Jen's Jenny Lauer Bachman and her non Lopez for wandering.