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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Perils from the paparazzi are mostly myth

By Tim Cavanaugh

"I was terrified that this time the physically aggressive paparazzi would put both me and my baby in danger," Britney Spears announced two weeks ago after getting caught driving with her unsecured infant son on her lap.

Back in the halcyon days of 2005, this excuse might have gotten a sympathetic response from the public, the media and even law enforcement officials. But age and wisdom have made us all more skeptical of blaming the paparazzi the last acceptable prejudice.

It was just last month, as a troubled nation was beginning to cope with the crisis of Lindsay Lohan's rapid weight loss, that an important piece of Lohania vanished right before our eyes. Criminal charges against Galo Cesar Ramirez, the celebrity photographer who in May was arrested after an automobile accident with the star of "Herbie: Fully Loaded" were dropped.

Considering the abysmal driving record Lohan has racked up (including a previous accident that resulted in the starlet being sued by an injured driver, and a subsequent fender-bender that she also tried, without success, to blame on a paparazzo), it's no surprise that the case against Ramirez turned out to be baseless. But the young photographer's hair-breadth escape from the law also signaled a turning point in the trumped-up war against "stalkerazzi."

For a brief, shining moment in 2005, Lohan's accident was the centerpiece in an anti-paparazzi campaign waged by celebrities such as Cameron Diaz (who in midyear settled a suit by a shutterbug she'd assaulted and robbed of his camera), Reese Witherspoon (who filed a false-imprisonment charge against photographers that later turned out to be bogus) and Halle Berry (who in 2000 pleaded guilty to a lesser charge related to a non-paparazzi hit-and-run accident in which another driver suffered a broken arm).

Celebrities and paparazzi make strange antagonists, and not only because of their symbiotic professional relationship. In any disinterested reading of the accident reports, these actors come off as a gang of dangerous, lead-footed rage-aholics, while the hardworking photographers appear guilty only of the crime of giving the celebs too much of the attention they crave. So how did the pampered multimillionaires briefly manage to garner public support, attract fawning media attention to their cause and eventually push through an anti-stalkerazzi law in California?

Simple: They waved the bloody shirt of Princess Diana, and they advanced the preposterous notion that Los Angeles' streets are being menaced not by their own hot tempers and reckless driving but by aggressive photographers in black SUVs. Thus, for example, Scarlett Johansson attempted to blame paparazzi for an August crash in the Disneyland parking lot, although it turned out there were no shooters involved. And the notoriously high-strung Jennifer Lopez blamed an April panic attack not on her own sagging career prospects but on chimerical photographers who supposedly surrounded her chauffeured vehicle.

All these stories were duly passed along, treated seriously by a public and a media that as a cursory paycheck comparison will prove have far more in common with the paparazzi than with the glamourati.

Nor has media coverage of this issue acknowledged that the stalkerazzi creation myth is just that a myth. Diana's 1997 death in a drunken-driving accident remains the standard cautionary tale about photographers gone wild. Yet the attempt to build a case against the paparazzi was abandoned by prosecutors, and even the dogged Mohammed Fayed eventually lost his civil suit against three of the alleged pursuers. He has moved on to more fanciful theories about his son Dodi's death, but one point is well established in every court but the court of public opinion: The paparazzi were blameless in this, the foundational deadly paparazzi incident.

So what did the photographers do to deserve this abuse? Look to the celebrities themselves. They're being marginalized by structural changes in entertainment habits, by businesses that are no longer interested in celebrity endorsements, by a public increasingly bored with stars whose most entertaining high jinks are covered up by publicists such as the maniacal Lizzie Grubman (who in 2001 drove her car into pedestrians outside a Long Island nightclub). In this fix, the prima donnas are lashing out, in classic nouveau-riche fashion, against their underlings.

So far, unfortunately, their campaign has been successful enough to produce a bad law. Late last year, actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the anti-stalkerazzi measure, which triples damages awarded for photography-induced accidents and prohibits paparazzi from profiting from the photos that ensue. The free-speech implications are ominous, but there's at least one sign that instant karma may be coming around: Shortly after the bill became law, Schwarzenegger crashed his motorcycle in a non-paparazzi-related accident, requiring 15 stitches to his face.

Tim Cavanaugh is Web editor of Reason magazine. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.