Colby College: Orth on pop culture, fame

Published in on March 15, 2011

Orth on pop culture, fame

by Carly Rushford and Leah Walpuck

Special correspondent for Vanity Fair Maureen Orth focused on the prevalence of pop culture, tabloids and fame in today’s world during her talk titled “Up Against the Power of Fame: Confronting the Spin, the Resistance, and the Pushback to Deliver the Truth” on Monday, March 14. As the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Visiting Journalist, Orth will be on campus all week attending classes, speaking to students and leading journalism workshops.

Orth studied at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating, she was part of one of the earliest groups to travel to Colombia as part of the Peace Corps. During her two years there, she helped to build a school, which was then named for her, Escuela Marina Orth.

Orth was the third women ever hired at Newsweek when she started writing there in 1973. She then continued her journalism career at various other magazines and newspapers, including Vogue and The Washington Post, before starting work at Vanity Fair in 1988.

Orth became a special correspondent in 1993 and since then has interviewed countless celebrities and political figures such as Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Orth commented on how the increasing accessibility of celebrity news and the pervasiveness of the internet largely contribute to “one besotted planet feeling that connection to celebrity.”

“The celebrity industrial complex has grown rapidly like the fallout of the atomic bomb,” Orth said, giving the example of how Michael Jackson “was so addicted to fame he was willing to dangle his baby out the window.”

Michael Jackson was a subject of particular interest for Orth. Over a period of 12 years she interviewed hundreds of people concerning him and wrote a series of five investigative pieces about his life. This included investigations into his career, drug addictions, accusations of child molestation, the resulting trial and his death.

With celebrities like Paris Hilton, Snooki and Jessica Simpson in the spotlight, “we are fed a steady diet of celebrity news…it’s a great way to avoid grappling with the big downers [like the economic recession],” Orth said. “We live in an age where talent has nothing to do with fame,” she said. Instead “there is a 24 hour news cycle” that leaves ample space to fill with gossip and Hollywood news.

Right after 9/11, Orth traveled to Afghanistan to do some front-line news coverage, particularly to investigate the connection between drugs and terrorism. From her research in Colombia and Afghanistan, Orth realized that the cultivation of and money from drugs feed terrorist organizations. “I wish people who consume illegal drugs in the US knew how this creates terrorism…this violence [in nations with drug-dependent economies] is due to our casual use of drugs,” Orth said.

Orth also made connections between her journalistic experience in Afghanistan and in Hollywood through the mentality that “you have to be prepared for anything,” in both areas.

When speaking to the question of changing news mediums, Orth emphasized that no matter what the medium, she believes “content is key: strong truthful content.” We are in a time of transition with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube where “everyone can be a reporter and a media creator,” Orth said.

Although a journalist by title, Orth’s true passion lies with her school in Medellín, Colombia. What began as a school for 35 children, now educates over 200 students. Escuela Marina Orth became the first bilingual school in Colombia, teaching both Spanish and English. Additionally, under Orth’s guidanc,e the school now has a “one laptop per child” program.

For more information about Orth, visit her website at

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