It's not even February yet, but Christmas came very, very early for gossip rags in 2014. As you have almost certainly heard, the inevitable has happened: Justin Bieber was arrested in Miami around 4:30 this morning for drag-racing, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest.
The arrest report alone provides enough juicy copy to help fuel at least a dozen TMZ stories. Bieber was driving a Lamborghini. He unleashed a barrage of curses at the police officer who stopped him. He reportedly admitted to drinking, smoking marijuana, and taking antidepressants, and faces a possible six months in jail. The arrest caps off a slew of reports about Bieber's wild behavior, which has recently included accusations of egging a neighbor's house and a $75,000 night at a Miami strip club.
It is, in short, the dramatic fall from grace that many have predicted since Bieber began acting up around a couple years ago. Yes, the gossip rags pounced, but they weren't alone; virtually every legitimate news outlet ran at least one straight-faced report documenting the circumstances of Bieber's arrest. Twitter had a field day. Even the Miami Beach Police Department got in on the fun, tweeting Bieber's three-page arrest report and mugshot, complete with several attempts at a trending hashtag.
— Miami Beach Police (@MiamiBeachPD) January 23, 2014
You can make legitimate arguments both for and against the value of all this Justin Bieber coverage. For: Like it or not, Bieber is one of the biggest pop stars in the world, which makes his day-to-day life newsworthy to a sizable audience — and the seriousness of the charges against him makes this the most genuinely newsworthy Justin Bieber story in months. Against: Justin Bieber is a celebrity best left to the tabloids, and the time and energy spent on stories about him could have been spent on something with actual import (like, say, the ongoing riots in Kiev).
My initial reaction to the news of Bieber's arrest fell between annoyance and despair. There's something bleak and gross about all the instant rubbernecking, as adults across the globe breathlessly chronicle every minor development in the arrest of a teenager. There's the massive subsequent wave of hastily assembled press releases offering opinions from mercenary "experts" like a yogi numerologist. And there's the similarly inescapable wave of bottom-feeding "listicles" that compile, say, celebrity mugshots, or celebrities that have been charged with DUIs.
But if the oncoming onslaught of Justin Bieber stories makes you decry the state of journalism, remember: There are smart ways to cover a stupid story. To borrow from another recent headline-grabber, take the response to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's post-game interview with Erin Andrews. The initial, disproportionate reaction to the 20-second interview tended to be glib and lazy. But as the story evolved, the conversation Sherman's interview generated — which has offered an unexpected platform for discussions about everything from the coded message behind the word "thug" to the consequences of society's unspoken expectations for black men — has been revealing and valuable in ways the original story wasn't.
We're still in that glib, lazy first stage with Justin Bieber right now — but we don't need to stay there. As unseemly as it might be to ride the wave of Bieber clickbait, it's equally cynical to roll your eyes and ignore. The right response is one that recognizes even the most sensationalized stories can elevate issues that don't get nearly enough spotlight. (Like, say, the staggering cost of drunk driving, which causes nearly 30 deaths in America every day, or the impact that the downward spiral of an idol has on his millions of young, adoring fans.)
I wouldn't blame anyone who's already sick of seeing Justin Bieber's name and mugshot thrown around the internet, but there are opportunities here, and it's now the job of cultural commentators to rise above the muck and find them.