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Image: Photographers try to get a shot of Britney in ambulance.
Mark J. Terrill  /  AP
Photographers try to get a shot through the back window of a Los Angeles City Fire Department ambulance carrying Britney Spears as it leaves her residence on Thursday, Jan. 3.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/26/2008 12:10:24 PM ET 2008-02-26T17:10:24

Mental illness and the media are as inextricably linked as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. My first realization of this came when I announced way back that I was going to journalism school with the intent of becoming a reporter. Since my parents couldn’t afford to fly me to Vienna at the time, and research was still sketchy regarding the benefits of shock therapy, they were somewhat helpless and had no alternative but to go along and accept my loony career choice.

Over the years, mental illness can be observed at just about any media event or gathering, displaying its credential proudly. But nowadays, in an era in which paparazzi go after celebrities like the bloodthirsty zombies went after the surviving humans in “28 Days Later,” mental illness appears to be developing in the targets of media scrutiny, not so much among the ink stained wretches themselves.

It’s impossible to say if media intrusion was a contributing factor in the tragic death of Heath Ledger. But it’s not far-fetched to suggest that the stress of being stalked by media may have caused him to turn more and more to prescription drugs for relief.

Perhaps the most prominent recent example of a celebrity having his or her mind messed with by renegade elements of the press is Britney Spears. She is said to be suffering from serious mental illness, and it can’t be getting any better by having hordes of camera-wielding assailants confronting her every time she goes to and from her car.

It should be noted first off that a celebrity is, to a reasonable extent, fair game. When someone makes a living in the public eye, that person understands there will be a certain amount of privacy that is kissed goodbye forever. It’s part of the job description, right there in the fine print with the hefty income, red carpets, velvet ropes and exclusive parties.

A celebrity also knows every move he or she makes — professionally and personally — will be praised or ridiculed, but rarely ignored. When Britney made a bunch of fans wait in line at San Diego’s House of Blues last May and then rewarded them with a half-hearted 15-minute set, I excoriated her. When she slogged through a pitiful performance last September at the MTV Video Music Awards, she invited widespread derision.

Of course there is a certain amount of responsibility Britney herself has to take for starting these brushfires of disaster.

But the issues now are whether she indeed is mentally impaired, whether the media are making it worse, and whether they have a responsibility to back off and give the woman some peace.

Remember that the media in question here are not the denizens of the Washington Post’s White House bureau, or the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. They’re the mostly male-dominated tabloid paparazzi, followed closely by the somewhat more respectable but only slightly less harassing members of the mainstream entertainment press, representing publications like People, Us Weekly and others. And there are the television reporters from the seemingly endless wave of entertainment shows, along with Internet bloggers and stringers.

Together they all team up to chronicle Britney’s every step. Ordinarily, while it’s often distasteful, it’s expected given that level of celebrity.

Now, though, Britney is said by family and friends to be suffering from serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder and/or post-partum depression. Not long ago she exited her house strapped to a gurney after the police were called to her home. Her behavior has become more and more erratic.

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I’d call this a cautionary tale about the effects of global celebrity and Hollywood excess except nobody seems to be exercising any caution, especially certain segments of the press.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings I can understand that the media are in the habit of employing all-out assaults when it comes to tabloid figures, so it’s difficult to tell them to ease up. This is, after all, the way many of them make their bones. Although the absurd magnitude of it is relatively new, this dynamic has been going on for decades. Reporters and photographers in such situations aren’t accustomed to shifting into a lower gear. Big money is at stake.

Journalists are taught to maintain a healthy skepticism when it comes to the subject matter they are examining, but often that can degenerate into a deep cynicism. When members of Britney’s inner circle announce she is mentally ill, the news is usually greeted by reporters and photographers as more spin from people skilled at doing it well.

Since few in the media have training in psychology, a simpler, common-sense method of assessing the situation is required. If you’re covering a young woman who seems to be unable to provide a stable home for her kids, who abruptly shaves her head, who was taken to UCLA Medical Center for mental evaluations twice in a short period of time and was placed on “mental evaluation hold,” who refuses to take her medication, and perhaps worst of all, who gets involved in a romantic relationship with a member of the very paparazzi that is making her life miserable, it all may be a cue to leave her be. In fact, the only sane thing she has done in the past six months is kick Dr. Phil out of her hospital room.

The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …” It doesn’t say anything about the right to torment a seriously troubled young woman in pursuit of profit. And rarely does the celebrity press peaceably assemble.

Maybe, in the sad case of Britney Spears, it might be time to start.

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.

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