Miley Media Mania

Depending on which network you get your news from you've either been told that the now infamous Vanity Fair photo of Disney teen star Miley Cyrus (a.k.a. Hannah Montana) is either a marketing “bonanza” or the potential death knell for Disney's “cash cow.”

The media have been in overdrive, covering this story for two days.  Every broadcast morning program talked about it Monday morning when the news broke.  Every network evening broadcast weighed in Monday night and ABC and NBC followed up with stories Tuesday morning.

The media have sought the opinions of moms, kids, advertisers and psychologists in covering the story. Moms for the most part have either expressed disappointment or seem nonplussed. On the evening news shows most parents reacted with disappointment but said they wouldn't bar their children from watching Cyrus's wildly popular show Hannah Montana.  By the time Tuesday morning rolled around the talking points for parents seemed to turn more to how to talk to children about the pictures and using Cyrus's statement apologizing to her fans as a way to teach kids about making good choices.

Unsurprisingly, it has been the advertising executives who only see good in the situation.  On NBC's Nightly News Bob Garfield from Advertising Age said, “The word that comes to mind is 'Bonanza.' She's probably positioned herself very nicely for the next stage which is to no longer be a 15-year-old ingénue.”

Donny Deutsch, another advertising executive and host of the CNBC show The Big Idea, concurred during his appearance on Today when he told Meredith Vieira that everyone involved in this controversy comes out a winner.

I'm saying to make photos of a 15-year-old who is going to turn into a young lady, to womanhood, to start to -- in an isolated area -- Vanity Fair. This is not mass media, this is not television, this is not the Disney Channel. Otherwise, she's out of business in two years. History proves that. It's a fact, kids.

The problem with Deutsch's logic is that the photos of Cyrus (the most controversial being one in which her front is covered with a silk sheet but her back is exposed and bare) don't only appear in the June issue of Vanity Fair.  They are also on the Internet and now have been broadcast worldwide on television.  In fact this IS mass media, it IS television.  It is NOT isolated. According to several reports the Vanity server crashed yesterday when millions of people were trying to see the photos online.

Such intense public interest and the media's feeding frenzy surrounding this story are reminiscent stories about troubled celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.  At the height of Britney Spears' very public meltdown the media became a little more self conscious in its reporting.  Perhaps that collective gut check has led reporters covering the Cyrus controversy to use experts to address issues of the culture's oversexualization of kids and the pressure of celebrity on teenagers.  Jean Kilbourne, author of So Sexy So Soon, told CBS's Sandra Hughes, “No matter how they start out, the culture pressures them to become sexier, to appeal to an older audience.”

Themes of sexualization, the power of the Internet and teachable moments came together during the Today show on Tuesday.  Meredith Vieira interviewed psychologist Ruth Peters and the executive editor of Seventeen, Joanna Saltz.

VIEIRA: Hey Ruth … If you are the parent of a young girl … what do you say to your child? Do you show them the picture?

RUTH PETERS: Absolutely. I would grab this as a teachable moment and I would kind of use it as an analogy to -- even she is giving in to peer pressure, this celebrity peer pressure, doing something that is probably very inappropriate and there are vast consequences that are going to be coming from this. So use this, Meredith, with your kids. Let them see that there is a bigger thing than just a photo.

VIEIRA: And there are more than these photos, obviously. We talked earlier about all of the ones that are on the Internet that show her with friends in various poses and the one we're showing with right now looks like she's pretending to kiss a girl, exposing her bra, there's one of her draped across the lap of a young man with her midrift exposed. The advice that you give to a daughter about those photos obviously would change depending on the age of your child?

PETERS: Right. If you have a little one, you would again, all that you say is this is very inappropriate and there would be consequences. As your kids get a little older, I think you, can again bring it into your own house by saying, now look, don't even consider doing anything like this on your Myspace. Look what happens. It's just as public as what's happening to this young lady. So you can see that people will judge you for these types of actions and there's a lot of fallout and a lot of consequences. That's the message. Use this as a teachable moment for your kids in your home.

VIEIRA: Joanna, You've said that your readers do not like to see young women sexualized, that you've become a Lindsay, Paris and Britney-free magazine because readers complain. Do you think they're gonna complain about Miley Cyrus?

SALTZ: Well I think we need to ask ourselves one major question which is what 15-year-old girl out there hasn't made a mistake? I think what really sets Miley apart in this case, is that she's owned up to her mistake.  

VIEIRA: She's apologized.

SALTZ: The minute she feels like she overstepped a boundary, she said I'm sorry and what I did was inappropriate. Where as somebody like Paris, Britney or Lindsay Lohan seem to have a blatant disrespect to the people who look up to them. I think that's the biggest thing that I'm learning from this situation and I think teens need to learn, to take ownership of your mistakes.

Later in the same interview Vieira and Saltz discussed what may end up being the legacy of the controversy.

VIEIRA: You know, she's in that weird part of in her life where obviously she's apologized to her fans but also probably trying to segue into the older crowd, the kids that are 18, 19, 20 so the question is should younger kids be looking for another role model at this point?

SALTZ: I think there's such a valuable lesson to be learned here, quite honestly. You know, if we are teaching our girls that one mistake and you're ruined forever, we're not giving them an opportunity to grow, to learn from their mistakes, to brush themselves off. You know, I think that we need to examine the fact that she's taking responsibility. That's such an important fact for our girls. Because they are going to make mistakes and that's okay.

It remains to be seen how Cyrus will weather the storm.  She has been quite public about her desire to be a positive role model for young girls. Last fall, in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, she spoke about her love of God and her intention to not fall into the same traps as Britney and Lindsay and Paris. One hopes that this brush with controversy will show her how easy it is to get derailed.

On ABC's World News with Charles Gibson reporter Sharon Alfonsi closed her story on the Vanity Fair photo controversy by saying it was, “sparking many discussions at dinner tables around the country.”  No doubt that included the Cyrus family dinner table too.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.