Media's Master Manipulator

One danger in thinking about media too much is reducing everything to The Game. And, to oversimplify what the late Atlantic Monthly editor and essayist Michael Kelly said, The Game is simply one of burnishing your own image by getting good press. Of scandals weathered wisely; of years feeding the ever-hungry journalistic pack and escaping with all fingers intact. When The Game is taken to its extreme by those who work in media and in media-savvy industries like entertainment and politics, good performances at the above equal virtue.

I regret to say that this column is about all of these things. And Angelina Jolie. Actress, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador since 2001, adoptive and birth mother, and philanthropist, she's the all-purpose action figure of today's celebrity-industrial complex. Her skills at The Game astonish its harshest judges -- the hardened vets of celebrity media. "She really is the new paradigm of how to use your celebrity in ways that benefit everyone involved," says Larry Hackett, People's top editor. Not least of which is herself. It would be churlish to imply that Jolie's extensive charity work is motivated by anything other than sincerity, but it's a crucial element of her increasing celebrity currency and transformation from blood-obsessed tattooed goth to post-punk Mother Teresa.

Also, her boyfriend is Brad Pitt.

THE TOP FIVE CELEBRITY magazines sell a combined 5 million copies on newsstands each week, and each week requires fresh meat. Celebrity media circa 2006 call for more than just glammed-up or dressed-down images. Like any good reality show, they require story lines and character arcs. They need drama and a steady stream of fresh episodes.

One indicator of Jolie's skill at working this system, at overwhelming it with stories so the media don't need to find their own, is how the aftermath of her highly publicized hookup with Pitt played out. The exact moment of the couple's ignition is not known, but Jolie and Pitt met cute on the set of last summer's blockbuster Mr. & Mrs. Smith while Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston. (And when Jolie was coming off a major box office flop in 2004's Alexander.) But in short course the story line "was not 'I took someone's husband.' It was 'I adopt children. I donate [much of] my income,"' says one top tabloid editor. "She is a genius at changing the narrative..... How do you hate someone who spent Thanksgiving helping Pakistani earthquake victims?"

Unlike virtually all other celebrities, Jolie does not employ a publicist and in the past year has kept press interviews to a minimum. (She declined to comment for this column.) But the story she presents needs little augmentation. She snagged Pitt, or as one editor puts it, "she usurped the most popular girl." She had his child, and pregnancies of the stars are the fix and rush of celebrity media. And in her first post-pregnancy interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, she said she was already planning her next adoption. (Even postpartum, she scripts the upcoming episode.) The underpinning of her story differs from the fantasies of a life of endless shopping that the tabloids typically sell -- not just getting the guy, not just saving the world, but one of utter self-determination. "Women like her. She so does her own thing," says another top editor, including "crazy [expletive], like having her baby in Namibia. She just does it."

Paris Hilton got famous by keenly understanding and playing to what tabloids want, but Jolie did something more rare by using them as a springboard to reshape an image. (And, of course, expose fans to causes bigger than herself.) She did this by knowing what makes a celebrity story. "Honestly, in another life, she could have been a magazine editor," says Albert Lee, a senior editor at Us Weekly. Hey Angelina: If the actress-ambassador thing doesn't work out, there's something for you to fall back on.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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