Maybe you didn’t hear the news on Saturday night. Maybe you weren’t like me, at home, preparing a journal article at 7 pm, and were thus out of reach of all internet gossip. But if you were online or in any way attached to social media, chances are you heard or saw the tsunami-like progress of the Brangelina Break-Up through the internet. Of course, it was false. But for a few hours, for many, it felt very true.
Lainey Gossip does a superb job of laying out the very specific reasons why this rumor could not have been true. As she underlines,
These two are manipulative and obsessively controlling. Especially HIM. And they’re not lazy. They’re not Tiger Woods. They are experienced. They lock their sh-t down tight. And for something like this, if they really are prepared to call it off, it would have been engineered and masterminded months ago. They would have had a game plan in mind to run the message the way they want to run the message. Just like Pitt made the announcement of his split from Jennifer Aniston strategically on a Friday afternoon, after everyone had gone home, while he was away on holiday, as the least opportune time for the media.
In other words, they’re the best. I’m not saying this because I like them or I’m fascinated by them; I’m saying this because they have a tested and true record of brilliant and immaculate publicity manipulation. Please recall: Angelina Jolie, whose image had theretofore been characterized by brother-kissing, amulet-wearing, and associations with the likes of Billy Bob Thorton, “steals” Brad Pitt from all-American Jennifer Aniston. They don’t get married. They adopt many, many non-white children; they have three children out of wedlock. And they got away with it! Not only that, they are beloved. Indeed, they are, without a doubt, the biggest stars in America. Their auras are the largest; they may not be able to open a film like, say, oh, John Travolta in Wild Hogs, but trust me, their brands are much, much more valuable.
This wasn’t some magic trick or intrinsic quality; it was the product of impeccable and incredibly savvy P.R. Just see Nikki Finke on Jolie’s manager, Guyer Kosinski, who was recently hired by Nicole Kidman to revamp her struggling career. He may be referred to as “Guyer the Liar” and have a general reputation in Hollywood for sleaziness, but the guy is so effective that Jolie does not even have an agent. Many of you already know this about Pitt and Jolie. But for those of you who don’t, the lesson is: when, and if, they ever separate, it will be a masterpiece of P.R. manipulation.
And it will most certainly not come from the likes of The News of the World, whose story, published on Saturday afternoon, was the source of the rumor. Now, as Lainey again points out, U.S. tabloids have been trumpeting the demise of Brange for the last four years. Life and Style is especially keen on declaring the various reasons for their tragic break-up: Angelina cheats on Brad with tutor, Brad’s secret rendezvous with Jen, etc. etc. But when you read it in Life and Style in the supermarket aisle, the vast majority of us, even those who love gossip, put absolutely zero stock in such a claim. Why? We’ve been trained. We’ve seen so many false claims on the tabs — and I’m not necessarily talking about The National Enquirer, which, as the John Edwards and Tiger Woods cases prove, are actually oftentimes ahead of the curve — but the truly unresearched, sensational, and derivative tabs like L&S, The Sun, and The Star.
Why, then, did so many believe it? Let’s be a bit more specific. Why did so many Americans believe it? The answer is pretty simple: lack of international media literacy. In other words, they didn’t realize that News of the World was a British tabloid. Doesn’t it kind of sound like, oh, I dunno, The Globe and Mail? Or something else super official? It’s promising to offer the News of the World! Not Life and Style!
And many people believed this story — including reputable people — which only facilitated the spread of the rumor. Even Roger Ebert, who’s developed quite the devoted Twitter following, retweeted the news. When it first broke, I was in Twitter “conversation” (oh god, supernerdtastic) with fellow media scholars Christine Becker and Alisa Perren, and all of us were looking for TMZ to break the news. And if you ever hear news of such a split again — or of any major celebrity news — that’s where I’d absolutely advise going to confirm. As I argue in my recent article on TMZ, which just came out in print in Television & New Media, TMZ has a rock-solid network of informants, inside-men/women in the legal system, and immaculate fact checking. They’re basically lawsuit proof, in part because they don’t publish rumor. They publish confirmed facts. When they broke news of Michael Jackson’s death hours before anyone else, it wasn’t because they were jumping the gun. He was dead on arrival, and they had the sources within the ambulance/EMT network to confirm it. But they’re more than just libel-proof — they’re also right. No matter your feelings about their garish and intrusive style, they get the dirt, and they publish it first, and if it’s not there, it’s not true.
Of course, when Pitt and Jolie (and their publicists) realized they needed to counter this unexpected rumor, they didn’t call TMZ. TMZ rarely trucks in publicists. Instead, they called People, which relayed an official statement as to the continuing integrity of their relationship. And while official statements are often bunk, this one rings true. Again, if they were going to break up, it most certainly would not be leaked, scooped, or scandalous. It would be handled with kid-gloves, it would sustain the auras of both Pitt and Jolie, and it would make all involved parties look saintly.
So let this be our lesson: don’t trust British tabloids, don’t trust sources just because they have “news” in the title, and don’t believe a Brangelina break-up tale until it involves an official statement, TMZ confirmation, and a dramatic surge of damage control pictures featuring beautiful children.