Friday, January 11, 2008

The term “ambulance chaser” was coined to scorn that profession seen as the lowest of the low — the unsavory trial lawyer who trolls for business from vulnerable accident victims. I suggest a new use for the word, however, to describe members of a profession that now has unscrupulous attorneys beat in terms of trying to profit from other people’s misfortunes — the paparazzi.

Celebrity photographers literally chased an ambulance last Friday morning as they fought to get sensational pictures of Britney Spears. The troubled pop star was taken in the vehicle to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after Los Angeles police ordered she be hospitalized “for her own welfare,” according to a spokesman. Police were called to her home after she reportedly refused to hand over her two children to her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, who has temporary custody. She was kept in the hospital for psychiatric observation until Saturday.

Anyone who’s seen footage of the event — and who hasn’t? — must have been shocked. Police escorts had already started making their way to the hospital when photographers actually went in front of the ambulance carrying Miss Spears, blocking the vehicle from moving.

If the singer had been in need of emergency medical treatment — and for all those photographers knew, Miss Spears might have overdosed on drugs — those photographers might have had a death on their hands. With the increasingly aggressive behavior of the paparazzi, it now seems like it’s only a matter of time before someone is actually maimed or killed as the result of reckless pursuit by what amounts to highly paid stalkers.

Celebrities have long complained about the paparazzi invading their privacy, but few of us have been sympathetic. They chose a highly public profession and owe the millions of dollars they’ve made in part to the very attention they decry, after all. Miss Spears herself has often been accused of courting paparazzi attention — she reportedly even invited one back to her hotel room one night recently.

However, after dealing with the paparazzi on a daily basis, some of these stars obviously figured out something we bystanders hadn’t fully absorbed — these single-minded photographers are, quite simply, dangerous.

Hello? Car chases are dangerous. That’s why police departments — especially in densely populated cities and suburbs — have strict policies for officers governing when such chases are permissible.

As superstars like George Clooney and Julia Roberts have tried to tell us recently, what’s at stake here goes far beyond the privacy of a handful of pampered celebs. What’s at stake is public safety: the safety of pedestrians out for a stroll in a residential zone, the safety of children being dropped off or picked up in school zones, the safety of the stars and, yes, the safety of the paparazzi themselves.

It took a pack of hounds stopping an emergency vehicle from immediately leaving for a hospital for this to sink in with me. Imagine if the photographers who awaited Miss Spears’ ambulance at the hospital had managed to keep someone else’s ambulance from making it in quickly and safely. It shouldn’t take a serious injury — or worse — to enforce laws against impeding an emergency vehicle. There are such laws, aren’t there?

Last Friday’s events are only the most vivid illustration of the escalating dangers posed by the paparazzi. The Los Angeles Times reports that a group of lawyers asked the L.A. County district attorney’s office to file stalking charges against photographers who follow their clients. This was two years ago, shortly after a spate of car accidents that stars said were caused by the paparazzi. The inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, may have absolved the paparazzi from blame in that accident, but they haven’t taken the incident as a wake-up call to rethink their hostile pursuits.

But then, pursuing photographs of celebrities is a lucrative business. Time magazine profiled one paparazzo in 2005 who boasted he earned $150,000 for a single photograph of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez after their breakup. The man, who got his first sale after ordering a pizza delivery to Oasis singer Liam Gallagher’s house and shooting him answering the door, said he’d get $2 million for a picture of Miss Spears and her then-new baby.

Clearly, the best way to stop bad behavior is to get rid of the incentive to commit it. Perhaps predatory photographers who endanger the safety of their quarry — and the innocent bystanders around them — should be subject to fines rather than jail time. Paparazzi are willing to become some of the most stigmatized members of society because the financial rewards are worth it.

To reach these people, lawmakers could also go after the tabloid magazines and television programs that use their footage. It would be difficult, however, to do this without trampling over their First Amendment rights.

There’s another way. Ultimately, these publications use the work of paparazzi because it’s worth it — candid pictures of Britney Spears and George Clooney and Ben Affleck in their private moments sell magazines. Much quicker than any politician in Washington, we could change these magazines’ business models overnight by refusing to buy any publications that feature the work of the stalkerazzi.

A picture of Owen Wilson, not allowed to recuperate from suicidal despair in privacy, snapped as he’s coming out of the hospital? Off my list.

That’s not likely to happen any time soon, though. Observers who know nothing of the star’s real life immediately speculated about whether Miss Spears was under the influence of drugs or alcohol last Friday. But we are the real addicts here — our craving to know anything and everything about our favorite stars may one day cause one of them to disappear.

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