Privacy and Publicness Over the Last Half Century

One of the interesting things about our modern world is how much less privacy we have and how much more we know about one another. One need only take a look at a Facebook page or google someone to see the proof. This is especially the case for celebrities. Someone recently noted that the difference between Lebron James and Michael Jordan and other famous NBA athletes of the past is that Lebron is the first superstar to live in the social media age where every detail of his life is reported.

There is a great column on this and other issues written as an exchange of e mails between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell. I strongly recommend the whole exchange if you are interested in basketball and sports generally, but here let me just note the part that deals with how much more we know these days about celebrities.  It begins at the second entry by Gladwell and illustrates how much about celebrities of past years we didn’t know. Here is an excerpt:

One night, [Johnny] Carson got very drunk and hit on an attractive woman at the bar who turns out, unfortunately, to be the girlfriend of a major Mafia guy.

Carson gets thrown down the stairs and escapes more serious injury only because “Jilly,” who is everything the name “Jilly” would suggest, steps in. The mobster then puts a contract on Carson’s life, who — terrified — holes up in his apartment and misses three consecutive shows. Desperate, NBC gets in touch with an agent at William Morris known to have an in with the mob, who brokers a deal with Joseph Colombo, the head of the Five Families, in which the contract is lifted in exchange for NBC agreeing to cover the Italian American unity rally on Columbus Day. . . .

Think of the sequence here. Carson, one night, hits on a girl. That act, in ascending order, requires the intervention of (a) big Jilly, (b) the most powerful television network on the planet, (c) the agent with the mob account at William Morris, (d) the head of the Five Families and (e) the programming department at the local NBC affiliate. The 1960s and 1970s were the time in recent American history when conspiratorial thinking was at its peak. People assumed back then that there was a lot going on beneath the surface. Can you blame them? There was a lot going on below the surface. . . .

It’s weird to think of Johnny Carson involved in a conspiracy, though.

And it just not plausible today, is it? There are 4 million Americans with top secret security clearances. How can you make a legitimate cultural argument for the presence of some shadowy secret government when 4 million people are in on the shadowy secret government? But in 1970, the Mafia throws the biggest star on television down the stairs and then puts a contract on him, causing him to lock himself in his apartment for three days and for millions of Americans to be forced to watch live coverage of the Italian American unity rally, and none of that became public. This is tabloid malpractice.

And don’t miss the Woods number and the take on Chappaquiddick, although they omit, alas, the Monica Lewinsky scandal.