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Are We Living in The Truman Show? Cathriona White, Caleb Bratayley and the Media's Obsession with Covering Their Death

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Trigger warning: This post discusses death and suicide.

Rest in peace Caleb Bratayley and Cathriona White. That’s the only thing that feels appropriate to say about two people who I had never heard of until the media started breathlessly covering their untimely passing with all of the media excitement that always accompanies celebrity deaths. The difference here is that neither of these two people were celebrities or media personalities until their deaths, which makes the wall-to-wall coverage both dubious and extremely telling about our present predicament.

Rubbernecking the Suicide of a Private Citizen

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Cathriona White took her own life and was just led to rest today. For those of you who are unaware, White apparently dated Jim Carrey. Before her death you would have been hard pressed to find any news about White and Carrey. They were not a “celebrity couple” and never walked a red carpet together. However since news of her death surfaced, media around the world have rushed in to give us as many details as possible: her alleged method of suicide, the alleged suicide note, the manner of death’s alleged connection to Carrey, her alleged involvement in Scientology, her alleged recent breakup with Carrey, and the alleged circumstances of her divorce.

Now White is being used to sell magazines. People Magazine has taken the lead in the White sweepstakes, publishing 25 articles in less than 10 days. Hundreds if not thousands of other articles have been written, some of them describing funeral plans, Carrey’s grief, who was paying for the burial, and the method of transportation they were taking to the funeral. Radar Online was first to publish sections that were allegedly taken from the suicide note. US Magazine ran an absurd story dated October 7 titled “Exclusive: Jim Carrey “Took Really Good Care” of Late Girlfriend Cathriona White: Details on Their Recent Romantic Outing.” This piece of “reporting” was about their alleged date at Nobu, which occurred “just days before her body was found inside her Sherman Oaks, Calif., home on Sept. 28.”

It’s all salacious gossip and total garbage. Did Cathriona White forfeit her privacy by knowing Jim Carrey? Did her family forfeit their right to bury their daughter in peace?

Hate-Watching the Funeral of a YouTube Child

Caleb Bratayley was one of three children who were part of a vlogging family. They belong to a new category of “celebrity” – the YouTube star – that I don’t really believe in. (I’m old.) Caleb’s family published videos of their kids every day for years. The family amassed a following that is moderate by YouTube standards.

Then Caleb died at age 13 because of a condition they did not know he had. The family announced Caleb’s death and attributed it to natural causes. Then the media took over, catapulting him to a level of fame that is puzzling. There are now hundreds of newspapers and websites covering Caleb’s death despite never knowing of his existence until they were alerted to it by the internet. Gossip sites like Gawker first implied foul play, then criticized the family for not releasing all of the details about why the boy died, then critiqued their funeral plans, then slammed the family for their YouTube stardom.

The coverage of Caleb differs from White’s death because it has an undercurrent of meanness, snark and judgment. I’m not exactly free of those three qualities from time to time, and since I am uncomfortable with parents putting their children on the internet in order to make a buck, I would seem to be right in Gawker’s target audience.

But how I feel about the parents running a live video feed of Caleb’s funeral is irrelevant. There is something sick about Gawker and similar websites implying foul play where the police found none, then turning around the next day and screaming at the parents for withholding every medical detail of their son’s death. What happened is really none of our business. They don’t need to release a dossier on what led to this terrible tragedy in their lives. The Gawker sites which describe hate-watching the funeral offer new version of staring at a car crash, hoping for a glimpse of dead bodies inside.

It’s The Truman Show

On some level, I understand the interest. It’s always a shock and tragedy when a young person dies. There is nothing inappropriate about the outpouring of grief by the fans of Caleb and his family. And yet I do object to parents sharing their children’s private moments online in order to build a following and get money.

Children can’t truly consent to these activities. No one knows what will happen when the children become adults and don’t wind up making a living from YouTube. No one knows what will happen when kids like the Bratayley don’t end up with successful showbiz careers. No one knows how it will feel to be 30 years old and find hundreds of half-staged videos of yourself permanently embedded on Facebook. How do you live without your parents as producers, managing every detail because you’re a “star”?

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Does uploading hundreds of family videos and inviting clicks, likes, comments and sponsorships also invite public scrutiny on the level that we would give public figures? Families like the Bratayleys or the Raders (Sam and Nia) have got to think about this before plugging in to the vlogging culture (and in the case of Sam Rader, complaining because he can’t have it both ways).

We can only re-watch The Truman Show and think hard about how every person now has the capability of putting themselves and their children on a homemade reality show. The Truman Show is a Jim Carrey movie that was originally thought to be predictive of reality TV. It turned out to be prophetic about a world where millions of people enact their own internet dramas with the purpose of achieving some kind of fame and fortune.

Facebook, YouTube, US Weekly and People are telling us SOMEONE DIED WE CAN’T LOOK AWAY. But maybe we should?

What are your feelings?

Alex is a lawyer and opinionated.

1 Comment

  1. Kay Nyman

    October 14, 2015 at 11:39 am

    This is one of the many things about our culture in the States that I just don’t understand. Honestly, I don’t even really get it for celebrity deaths either. But especially as you said, the fact that so many people only know about these two BECAUSE they died, that’s just awful.

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