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Whitney Houston and the Media Celebrity Death Watch

Maer Roshan, author of Courtney Comes Clean: The High Life and Dark Depths of Music's Most Controversial Icon, is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fix. Previously he was deputy of New York Magazine, editorial director of Talk, features editor of Interview, founder of QW, and founder and editor-in-chief of Radar Magazine and Radaronline.com.

Every few months, the death of a celebrity sparks a new media maelstrom about drugs. But more concerned with spectacle than substance, much of the press ignores the real issues behind America's deadliest epidemic, as well as its last famous victims.

Just minutes after Whitney Houston was found dead in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton at the age of 48, a caravan of network trucks began slowly encircling the plush hotel, morbidly eager to document her untimely demise. Since then, it's been nearly impossible to turn on the TV or log on to the Web without witnessing a tribute to the singer, often including depressing video footage of her long, painful decline. Her memorial on Saturday had the pomp and pageantry of a state event -- complete with dignitaries, crying onlookers and flags at half-mast.

But while speakers talked movingly about her battles, mention of the word 'addiction' was curiously scrubbed from the event.

It's no surprise that the singer's death has struck such a chord in the country. Incredibly talented, beautiful and ambitious, Whitney Houston was a rare kind of legend who changed the face of American pop music. In her later life she also became an addict whose cruel struggle with the disease unfolded in full public view. That she lay dying for hours in a luxe bathroom suite while her bodyguards cooled their heels outside is a sad commentary on the state of modern celebrity. That it took less than 10 minutes for the press to begin broadcasting her death is an even more searing indictment of contemporary media culture.

As a longtime editor at several magazines over the past two decades, I've admittedly been an active participant in this game -- keenly aware that for ordinary readers grappling with the mundanities of daily life, stars offer a few rare moments of transcendence. But their intoxicating effect on the American public also gives them outsized power to shape public perception. In the 1980s, Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson forced the media to finally pay attention to AIDS only after it had already killed an army of Americans. Michael J. Fox's battle with Parkinson's helped bring invaluable attention and funding to the disease, while prompting a debate on stem cell research that promises to have profound effects on the treatment of other illnesses.

But substantive stories about alcoholism and drug addiction remain largely outside the media purview -- focused on the tribulations of A and C-list celebrities, they're often ghettoized in gossip sites and channels like VH1. For all the daily hand wringing about celebrity overdoses and DUIs, there is precious little real reporting on the growing scientific understanding of the disease, the tragic lack of access to treatment or insurance coverage, or even the growing number of promising drugs that have begun to make real progress against this condition.

When I ask my journalist friends about their failure to take on the larger issues behind these stories, they usually reply that reporting on struggling stars is a teachable moment for many Americans. But that's not much of an answer. It's not really breaking news that drugs can be harmful and sometimes deadly. The real questions are: What can we do about it? And how exactly did we get here?

While most major causes of preventable death in the US are in decline, drugs -- especially pharmaceutical drugs -- remain a dramatic exception. A 2010 national survey by the Department of Health and Human Services found that over 22 million Americans suffer from alcohol or drug dependency. Drug overdose rates have more than tripled since 1999, claiming a life every 14 minutes. In fact, it's hard to imagine a single person in the whole country who hasn't been directly or indirectly affected. Rehabs and sober livings around the country have become a vast $20 billion business, many of them operating under woefully inadequate oversight. Many Americans under the age of 30 have become hooked on opiate painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, buying them on the street for prices as high as $80 a pill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the abuse of these painkillers was responsible for close to half a million emergency room visits in 2009, a number that has nearly doubled in just the past five years.

Our nation's seemingly ravenous appetite for drugs also raises problematic questions about the larger culture the media has helped create. Why is it that a nation that enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world also suffers one of the highest rates of drug abuse? Why are so many of us driven to substances to obliterate reality? What does this continuing scourge say about the values and morals that underlie our society?

The senseless death of one of America's most outsized talents is undoubtedly a cause for mourning. But tragic as her death may be, Houston is just another person lost to an epidemic that has also killed thousands more in just the path month. It would be a fitting coda to her impressive legacy if her death ended up provide a genuine 'teaching moment' for America: one that would encourage the media and public to look beyond the scandals and personalities to the complicated causes and consequences of this miserable disease. But that's probably wishful thinking. More likely, in a couple of weeks the hysterical pundits and satellite trucks will roll on to the scene of the next tragedy. As Truman Capote famously noted, "The dogs bark and the caravan moves on." Meanwhile the 22 million people affected by this disease will stay exactly where they are.

Cross-posted with The Fix. For more information, follow Roshan on Twitter.

Photo credit: shutterstock.com


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