‘We’re Sorry, Britney’: Media Faces Reckoning for Past Coverage

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Conversations about the relentless focus on the pop star’s mental health, mothering and sexuality have begun anew following The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears.”

“Help Me,” the cover of Us Weekly blared in all caps, below a photo of Britney Spears with her hair partly buzzed off. People Magazine promised to take readers “Inside Britney’s Breakdown,” teasing details of “wild partying, sobbing in public, shaving her head.” OK! Weekly tempted potential buyers with a firsthand account of an “emotional cry for help.”

In 2007, the celebrity magazines stacked up in dentists’ waiting rooms or on the racks by supermarket checkout lines had a favorite cover story: the trials and tribulations of a 25-year-old Britney Spears. That breathless, wall-to-wall coverage of her travails by glossy magazines, supermarket tabloids, mainstream newspapers and television shows alike is now being re-examined in the wake of a new documentary about Spears and her troubles by The New York Times.

Fourteen years after Spears’s most publicized crises, some see the hypercritical fixation on her mental health, mothering and sexuality as a broad public failing.

“We’re sorry, Britney,” read a post on Glamour’s Instagram this week. “We are all to blame for what happened to Britney Spears.”

Spears was a frequent cover star on celebrity weeklies in the mid-2000s.

The tabloids had been obsessed with Spears since her days as a teenage bubble-gum pop sensation, but the coverage reached a new level of intensity during her mid-20s. There seemed to be a vicious cycle at play: The relentless paparazzi that followed Spears nearly everywhere left her exasperated and helped fuel public displays of frustration, which magazines then covered aggressively, interviewing a host of tangential characters, including the owner of the hair salon where she shaved her head and a psychologist who had never treated her.

“Her story hit at a time when print magazines were hunting for the story of the week,” said Jen Peros, a former Us Weekly editor, “and when you found a celebrity — I hate to say it — spiraling or acting abnormally, that was the story. And we knew it would sell magazines.”

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A new episode of The New York Times Presents, on FX and Hulu, coming Friday, Feb. 5, at 10 p.m.Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times

Some are now asking for direct apologies from people who made jokes at Spears’s expense or interviewed her in ways now viewed as insensitive, sexist or simply unfair. On social media, there have been calls for apologies from prominent media figures, including Diane Sawyer, who, in a 2003 interview grilled Spears on what she might have done to upset her ex, Justin Timberlake; Matt Lauer, who pointed to questions about whether she was a “bad mom”; and the comedian Sarah Silverman, who made off-color jokes about Spears at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards.

These demands are encapsulated in another phrase spreading on social media: “Apologize to Britney.”

Silverman, who had joked on MTV that Spears’s children were “the most adorable mistakes,” did just that on an episode of her podcast that was released on Thursday, saying that, at the time, she had not understood that big-time celebrities could have their feelings hurt.

“Britney, I am so sorry. I feel terribly if I hurt you,” Silverman said. “I could say I was just doing my job but that feels very Nuremberg Trial-y, and I am responsible for what comes out of my mouth.”

The new documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” which premiered on Hulu and FX last Friday, traces the origins of Spears’s conservatorship, the legal arrangement that has mandated that other individuals — primarily her father — have had control over her personal life and finances for the past 13 years, following her 2008 hospitalization after a three-hour standoff involving her two toddler sons and her ex-husband Kevin Federline.

It wasn’t just the paparazzi and the tabloids that reported — sometimes breathlessly — on Spears’s marriages, children, substance abuse issues and mental health challenges: So did The New York Times, as well as other newspapers, television news outlets and late-night comedy programs. Even the game show “Family Feud” found a way to work Spears in, asking contestants to list things that she had lost in the past year (“her hair,” “her husband”).

In an interview, Samantha Barry, the editor in chief of Glamour, said of society’s treatment of Spears, “Hopefully we’re in a place where we won’t do that again, where we won’t lift up these celebrities — in particular women — and then proceed to rip them down.”

Charles Sykes/Invision, via Associated Press

Peros, who started as a reporter for Us Weekly in 2006 and ultimately became editor in chief, believes that with a decade and a half of hindsight, the media would treat Spears differently now. Weekly magazines are “much more sensitive and handle stories like this more delicately,” she said, pointing to coverage of celebrities like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, who have spoken more openly about mental health and substance abuse. Part of the evolution stems from the fact that these subjects are less stigmatized, but it’s also the result of journalists and editors understanding that aggressive media coverage would inevitably receive backlash now, Peros said.

Us Weekly was one of the magazines that poured resources into relentlessly covering Spears. In a March 2007 cover story that read like a play-by-play of a natural disaster and its aftermath, the magazine interviewed a diner at a sushi restaurant that Spears’s mother visited, a clubgoer at a karaoke party Spears dropped in on, and cited an anonymous source in Antigua, where Spears briefly checked into a rehab clinic.

“That was a time when she was making so much money for these magazines that we had the money to send a reporter to Antigua,” Peros said.

Back then, it was Peros’s job in New York to search for nuggets of insight into Spears’s life by interviewing dancers or lighting assistants on her tour, searching through the Yellow Pages for their contact information and typically granting them anonymity to share things that they probably shouldn’t. If the reporters had the same awareness about mental health that they have today, they might not have dug so aggressively, she said.

The main difference between then and now is the rise of social media, which has diluted the power of weekly magazines as the primary way to learn about celebrities’ personal lives. In some ways, social media can give celebrities more control over what people see: For Spears, her Instagram account is a repository for improvisational dancing, photos of her and her boyfriend, silly skits and random curiosities — all blasted out to an audience of 27.7 million followers.

There may be fewer professional photographers following celebrities like Spears around now, but at the same time, almost everyone is armed with a smartphone and has the potential to become an amateur paparazzi. Instead of sending a reporter to go to Antigua to find out what Spears was up to, Us Weekly would now be scouring social media for photos of her there walking around town or eating at restaurants.

Dax Holt, who was a producer at TMZ for over a decade and now co-hosts a podcast about Hollywood, said that he doesn’t necessarily blame the media for Spears’s breakdown but rather an American public that had an incessant curiosity for all things Britney. Still, Holt, who used to sift through paparazzi photos of Spears in his time at TMZ, said it made him sad to watch the documentary and see all that Spears had to endure.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like being a focal point of the world’s attention for so many years,” he said. “One little misstep and the whole world is laughing at you.”

So far, the public has heard little from Spears herself about the documentary and the reactions to it. On Tuesday, she seemed to indirectly address the film in social media posts when she wrote, “I’ll always love being on stage …. but I am taking the time to learn and be a normal person.”

This time, more people seem to be accepting that she is one.

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