NEW YORK (AP) — Of all the thousands upon thousands of words said, written or broadcast about Charlie Sheen in the past week, one pithy tweet may have best summed up the seemingly endless appetite for all things Charlie.
“Haven’t heard anything from (hashtag)CharlieSheen lately,” comedian Norm MacDonald tweeted. “I hope he’s still not all right.”
Not to worry — there was much more Sheen to come, and he was still not all right. With production halted on his top-rated “Two and a Half Men,” the self-proclaimed “Vatican assassin warlock” was ragging on his bosses, insisting he was clean while barely sounding coherent, and fighting for custody of his twin toddlers. And soon, the apparently unlimited forum he was being given was raising questions about the media’s role in all of it.
Were they, to use a term from the addiction world, “enabling” Sheen to continue on what seemed to many a path dangerous to his career, his health and his family? To use a stronger word, were they exploiting him?
And if yes, did that matter? To what extent, if any, did the media have a responsibility to consider what’s best for their subject — especially a rich TV star aggressively courting publicity?
What seemed clear is that we were watching one of the most astonishingly visible celebrity meltdowns in memory. Sheen’s ramblings promoting his new lifestyle — not bipolar, but “bi-winning,” he called it — took him from NBC’s “Today” to CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” to ABC’s “20/20,” and onwards. (The Associated Press also interviewed Sheen.) By the weekend, his record-setting Twitter feed was closing in on 2 million followers, SiriusXM Radio had broadcast 24 hours of straight Sheen on a special channel, Tiger Blood Radio, and he’d done his own 50-minute Internet show, “Sheen’s Korner.”
How much coverage would be enough, and would it ever stop? The harshest criticism came not from the addiction community or mental health professionals, but from media critics.
“Enabling is exactly the right word,” said prominent media blogger Jeff Jarvis. “The drug Sheen is on right now is attention, and he’s overdosing on that drug. This is a cynical act by the media. It’s exploitation.”
In an interview, Jarvis raised the possibility some have raised in interviews with Sheen: that he may have bipolar disorder.
“If what we’re seeing is bipolar disorder, then it isn’t Charlie Sheen we are hearing right now — it’s the disorder,” he said. “And we are delaying his recovery.”
Jarvis wasn’t alone. “The coverage has become excessive, even dangerous,” wrote Julie Moos on the website of the Poynter Institute. Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart wrote that the media should stop returning Sheen’s texts and calls, and instead should be “using their journalism to identify the people around Charlie who can actually get him into a rehab facility — against his will if necessary.”
Not surprisingly, the networks did not agree.
“Not at all,” said ABC’s Andrea Canning, when asked by media critic Howard Kurtz on CNN Sunday whether she’d had any hesitation about her extensive interview with Sheen for “20/20,” which generated huge ratings. “I dont know if you can really stop the train once people are this interested in it.”
And no, she replied when asked if now, the actor had had enough air time. “You know, I still think he has some things to say,” she said.
An ABC News spokesman, Jeffrey Schneider, said the coverage was justified. “Look, Charlie Sheen is the highest paid actor on TV’s top comedy show, whose personal life has been a huge topic of conversation for months. He also clearly had an interest in being interviewed and getting his side of the story out,” he said.
At least one TV personality was pointedly refraining from covering Sheen.
“I’m not gonna do it,” Craig Ferguson told his audience on CBS’ “Late Late Show.” He compared the frenzy to an 18th-century practice of people paying a penny to peer into the windows of asylums to watch the mentally ill.
Of course, it was impossible to know what Sheen is suffering from, if anything. Was it the drug abuse he’d acknowledged in the past but said was now over? Was it a mental issue? Or was he merely acting?
“In that case, he deserves an Academy award,” said Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California. “I never saw him act that well on ‘Two and a Half Men.'”
In any case, “Only he knows how much he is really falling apart,” said psychiatrist Gail Saltz. But, she added, all the media attention couldn’t be good.
“The spotlight is almost never helpful to people in these situations,” Saltz said. “It makes it harder to evaluate mistakes, to think things through, to take a different turn.”
And potentially more problematic than the impact on Sheen, she noted, was the impact on his children. Sheen has five kids, the youngest his nearly 2-year-old twins with estranged wife Brooke Mueller Sheen.
“Will this be good for his children to look back on? No — none of this is good for the children,” Saltz said. She added, though, that the media “are not therapists. They don’t really have the responsibility to protect Sheen.”
A fellow mental health professional, psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, agreed. He said the best one could hope for from the media was context — for example, when Sheen ragged on Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Yes, for some AA doesn’t work, but for many it provides a critical function,” Smaller said. “So I’d hope the media could provide information like that.”
In fact, the blinding attention to Sheen could actually turn out to be a positive thing, suggested Deni Carise, the senior clinical officer for the Phoenix House drug treatment center. “The coverage could be a real wake-up call to others who may need attention for similar problems, to seek out help,” she said.
Carise did not pretend to know the nature of Sheen’s problems, though she said his behavior in interviews was “clearly worrisome.” She said she hoped the media coverage would compel his friends and family to help him.
Though some media watchers worried about exploitation, others said it was unreasonable for anyone to expect outlets to ignore a troubled celebrity this famous.
“Sure, the media have been Charlie Sheen’s enablers,” said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. “But he wouldn’t be getting wall-to-wall coverage if that didn’t win big ratings, so it’s the audience — us — who are his codependents. Is the attention making his behavior worse? Maybe. But the media didn’t invent people’s urge to rubberneck at car crashes.”
And the ratings HAVE been big. ABC said its “20/20” special last week generated its biggest numbers for any ABC newsmagazine telecast since February 2009, among adults 18-49 and 25-54.
So in one respect, Sheen was still winning — er, “bi-winning.”
“Fame,” said Boyd, the USC professor, “is perhaps as much a drug as the real drugs. And it’s legal.”
Or, to quote another tweet from comedian MacDonald: “I pray that someone can help (at sign)CharlieSheen before he becomes even more successful, richer and happier.”