'Leave Britney Alone,' One Writer Pleads Asra Nomani, former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, says that after witnessing her brother's struggle with mental illness, it is impossible for her to find the entertainment or news value in the coverage — or harassment — of Britney Spears.
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'Leave Britney Alone,' One Writer Pleads

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. The media spotlight that helped make her famous remains focused on Britney Spears amid rehab, spontaneous buzz cuts, custody battles and now, hospitalization for psychiatric treatment. And we're not just talking about the tabloids and the weekly magazines, there's coverage on CNN and in the New York Times.

Journalist and professor Asra Nomani, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a freelancer for People magazine, says, enough is enough. The press should back off. Her op-ed, "Leave Britney Alone," appeared in the Los Angeles Times. She joins us in just a moment. We also want to hear from you. Are there stories in the media that you think the media should not cover? If so, what are they? 800-989-8255. E-mail talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation under way on our blog at npr.org/talk - npr.org/blogofthenation. You'll also find a link there to the op-ed we're discussing.

Asra Nomani is the author of the book "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Pilgrimage Into the Heart of Islam." She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Journalist and Freelance Reporter; Author, "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Pilgrimage into the Heart of Islam"): Thank you.

CONAN: And there will be those who argue that any coverage of celebrities is silly and pointless.

Ms. NOMANI: Absolutely. And I think that, you know, we have to appreciate freedom of press, that's what we're all about. But I just think that, you know, it's part of our vernacular in the newsroom to say, you know what, I'm sorry, I'm going to give it a pass, and that's something that I feel that we have to start implementing on celebrity coverage, too.

CONAN: Where do you draw the line?

Mr. NOMANI: Well, for me, it was when I saw Britney Spears in the ambulance. I saw in her the vulnerability that I have seen in my own brother. Twenty-five years ago, he was diagnosed with mental illness, I know it's called schizoaffective disorder. And when I saw that image of Britney, I went back 25 years ago to the moment when I saw my brother, you know, in restraints, not wanting treatment, not wanting help. And my heart broke then, and my heart broke now when I saw that same image of a human being in struggle.

CONAN: Yet obviously, you have that experience and saying, all right, enough. When it comes to psychiatric treatment, this is - this almost amounts to abuse.

Ms. NOMANI: To me, you know, TV stations have had to make the call. When somebody calls and says, I'm going to jump off the bridge, they don't - or I'm going to burn myself. You know, they've had to make a call in newsrooms that they're not going to send their camera crew, you know, and witness this. We've had to make calls where we decide that, no, we're not going to make fun of somebody because of their illness.

You know, look at every headline of Britney and just substitute brain tumor and ask ourselves, would we be standing outside the hospital if the headline was Britney emerges from chemotherapy, Britney emerges from cancer treatment? And so, to me it is abuse, it is harassment. And, you know, mental illness is an invisible illness, she's not in a wheelchair. The mentally ill don't walk around with - on crutches. And I know all of this because for so long, I wasn't compassionate to my brother. You know, I expected him to be normal like we expect from anyone else.

I was hard on him and all of this, you know, mocking that I hear in the press about Britney is one that I will, you know, admit to when I would talk with my brother. Why don't you get out of bed? Why don't you remember our birthdays? Why don't you remember to put your cereal bowl away? You know, this inability to grasp that this person is struggling.

CONAN: We're talking with Asra Nomani about her op-ed, "Leave Britney Alone." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And we'll get to calls in just a minute, but there will also be people who say celebrities like Britney Spears chose careers that put them in the public spotlight. They have for many years hungered and tried desperately to get more coverage. Isn't the loss of privacy simply a part of the job?

Mr. NOMANI: Absolutely. That, you know, there's a machinery. There's a celebrity machinery that is, you know, multi-gazillion dollar, and the publishing industry has become a part of that. But we can't, just because we're journalists, lose sight of our sense of compassion. My brother is the bravest person I know because he has struggled, and he continues to struggle. We have to give, you know, a sense of humanity to the coverage that we have. If we decide, because Britney is a public celebrity we don't have to treat her humanely, I think we've lost our humanity.

And we've had to make this call many times because President Clinton chose to go into the White House, his daughter went with him and yet we gave her life a pass. We decided as media reporters we weren't going to get into, you know, Chelsea Clinton's prom night. And we weren't going to stalk her on her first date. You know, all of these different calls. And so, we've made these kinds of decisions in the past, and I feel like we have use good judgment here.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Bill(ph). Bill with us from Victor in Idaho.

BILL (Caller): All right. Well, my observation (unintelligible) is that I don't think Britney would do half of the silly things that she does if she didn't get so much publicity out of it, so I agree with your guest, but I agree with her for a different reason.

CONAN: That you think the - she brings it on herself?

BILL: Well, I just think that the publicity is something that she wants. Maybe it's because of her mental illness that she wants it, but she obviously wants it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NOMANI: And what I think about that is that that's also an excuse that people use. Well, I mean, she calls TNZ. She picks up the phone and feeds this cycle of news coverage. But the truth is, you know, we have to decide whether we're going to be the adults in the room. You know, are we going to be the mature ones? Are we going to make the healthy decisions for society? When I saw the headlines - you know, committed, mental illness - I thought to myself and I've heard from so many people struggling with mental illness who are closing the door on the closet in which they live, because they fear that they, too, will be judged and mocked.

CONAN: Bill, thanks for the call. You were a stringer for People magazine and decided not to do that anymore. You're - the editor of People, Larry Hackett, the managing editor of People, responded to some of your criticisms and said, not covering something is simply not in the nature of the press. There's a competitive world out there and the press - you can't make a collective decision.

Ms. NOMANI: Well, we have. I mean, why is there the controversy over the, you know, disclosure of Valerie Plame's name. It was a national security issue, granted, but at the same time, we'd made a decision. And so, the law also is like a stick over our heads that we can't reveal the identities of CIA agents.

We made a decision that we weren't going to stalk, you know, Ronald Reagan when it was announced that he had Alzheimer's. We make calls all the time to give, you know, seemingly possible headlines a pass. The New York Times ultimately published, you know, the story of John McCain's possible relationship. But they did sit on that for a while. And these are the kind of calls we make all the time. I think it's just, you know, sort of passing the buck if we don't accept the fact that every day in the newsroom, we decide that we're not going to cover this story or not cover that story.

CONAN: But those are individual newsrooms; there's a lot of different newsrooms around the country.

Ms. NOMANI: Right. And we made a collective call as an industry that we're not going to publish the names of rape victims or children who are sexually abused. You know, we as an industry can rise to a higher standard. I mean, we - it's against our nature, I know that, to, you know, join a pact with everyone else on the playground. But there comes a point when I think that we do need to go into our collective souls and make some policy decisions in the industry that are for the betterment of not just individuals, but for society. And making fun of somebody with mentally ill - mental illness, I think is one of those calls.

CONAN: Making fun of someone with mental illness?

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah, like, let's not do it.

CONAN: Well, is that what the coverage has been doing?

Ms. NOMANI: I think so. I mean, I think basically we're mocking Britney. We're making fun of her and her exploits. Look at - this moment I had when I was watching, you know, one of the videos broadcast. And, you know, I could argue that I was being a student of the celebrity coverage but, I had my mea culpa. I mean, I picked up these magazines, I read the coverage. And for me, there just came a point when it was too much.

And there, the photographers were, as Britney was having a breakdown going, wow, Britney you look great, tears running down her face. You know, we've become a little bit ridiculous.

CONAN: Asra Nomani joined us here in Studio 3A. She is the author of "Standing Alone in Mecca." Her op-ed, "Leave Britney alone," appeared in the Los Angeles Times. You can find a link to it at our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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