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Image: Charlie Sheen
Ed Andrieski  /  AP file
Charlie Sheen's ranting interviews have proven to be ratings gold for the networks.
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updated 3/8/2011 7:08:56 PM ET 2011-03-09T00:08:56

Of all the thousands upon thousands of words said, written or broadcast about Charlie Sheen in the past week, one pithy tweet may have best summed up the seemingly endless appetite for all things Charlie.

"Haven't heard anything from (hashtag)CharlieSheen lately," comedian Norm MacDonald tweeted. "I hope he's still not all right."

Not to worry — there was much more Sheen to come, and he was still not all right. With production halted on his top-rated "Two and a Half Men," the self-proclaimed "Vatican assassin warlock" was ragging on his bosses, insisting he was clean while barely sounding coherent, and fighting for custody of his twin toddlers. And soon, the apparently unlimited forum he was being given was raising questions about the media's role in all of it.

Were they, to use a term from the addiction world, "enabling" Sheen to continue on what seemed to many a path dangerous to his career, his health and his family? To use a stronger word, were they exploiting him?

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And if yes, did that matter? To what extent, if any, did the media have a responsibility to consider what's best for their subject — especially a rich TV star aggressively courting publicity?

What seemed clear is that we were watching one of the most astonishingly visible celebrity meltdowns in memory. Sheen's ramblings promoting his new lifestyle — not bipolar, but "bi-winning," he called it — took him from TODAY to CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight" to ABC's "20/20," and onwards. (The Associated Press also interviewed Sheen.) By the weekend, his record-setting Twitter feed was closing in on 2 million followers, SiriusXM Radio had broadcast 24 hours of straight Sheen on a special channel, Tiger Blood Radio, and he'd done his own 50-minute Internet show, "Sheen's Korner."

Story: Charlie Sheen hosts Internet talk show

How much coverage would be enough, and would it ever stop? The harshest criticism came not from the addiction community or mental health professionals, but from media critics.

"Enabling is exactly the right word," said prominent media blogger Jeff Jarvis. "The drug Sheen is on right now is attention, and he's overdosing on that drug. This is a cynical act by the media. It's exploitation."

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In an interview, Jarvis raised the possibility some have raised in interviews with Sheen: that he may have bipolar disorder.

"If what we're seeing is bipolar disorder, then it isn't Charlie Sheen we are hearing right now — it's the disorder," he said. "And we are delaying his recovery."

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Jarvis wasn't alone. "The coverage has become excessive, even dangerous," wrote Julie Moos on the website of the Poynter Institute. Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart wrote that the media should stop returning Sheen's texts and calls, and instead should be "using their journalism to identify the people around Charlie who can actually get him into a rehab facility — against his will if necessary."

Not surprisingly, the networks did not agree.

"Not at all," said ABC's Andrea Canning, when asked by media critic Howard Kurtz on CNN Sunday whether she'd had any hesitation about her extensive interview with Sheen for "20/20," which generated huge ratings. "I don't know if you can really stop the train once people are this interested in it."

And no, she replied when asked if now, the actor had had enough air time. "You know, I still think he has some things to say," she said.

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An ABC News spokesman, Jeffrey Schneider, said the coverage was justified. "Look, Charlie Sheen is the highest paid actor on TV's top comedy show, whose personal life has been a huge topic of conversation for months. He also clearly had an interest in being interviewed and getting his side of the story out," he said.

At least one TV personality was pointedly refraining from covering Sheen.

"I'm not gonna do it," Craig Ferguson told his audience on CBS' "Late Late Show." He compared the frenzy to an 18th-century practice of people paying a penny to peer into the windows of asylums to watch the mentally ill.

Of course, it was impossible to know what Sheen is suffering from, if anything. Was it the drug abuse he'd acknowledged in the past but said was now over? Was it a mental issue? Or was he merely acting?

Discuss: Have you had enough of Charlie Sheen?

"In that case, he deserves an Academy Award," said Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California. "I never saw him act that well on 'Two and a Half Men.'"

In any case, "Only he knows how much he is really falling apart," said psychiatrist and TODAY contributor Gail Saltz. But, she added, all the media attention couldn't be good.

"The spotlight is almost never helpful to people in these situations," Saltz said. "It makes it harder to evaluate mistakes, to think things through, to take a different turn."

And potentially more problematic than the impact on Sheen, she noted, was the impact on his children. Sheen has five kids, the youngest his nearly 2-year-old twins with estranged wife Brooke Mueller Sheen.

"Will this be good for his children to look back on? No — none of this is good for the children," Saltz said. She added, though, that the media "are not therapists. They don't really have the responsibility to protect Sheen."

A fellow mental health professional, psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, agreed. He said the best one could hope for from the media was context — for example, when Sheen ragged on Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sheen prepared to fight for custody of sons

"Yes, for some AA doesn't work, but for many it provides a critical function," Smaller said. "So I'd hope the media could provide information like that."

In fact, the blinding attention to Sheen could actually turn out to be a positive thing, suggested Deni Carise, the senior clinical officer for the Phoenix House drug treatment center. "The coverage could be a real wake-up call to others who may need attention for similar problems, to seek out help," she said.

Carise did not pretend to know the nature of Sheen's problems, though she said his behavior in interviews was "clearly worrisome." She said she hoped the media coverage would compel his friends and family to help him.

Though some media watchers worried about exploitation, others said it was unreasonable for anyone to expect outlets to ignore a troubled celebrity this famous.

"Sure, the media have been Charlie Sheen's enablers," said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. "But he wouldn't be getting wall-to-wall coverage if that didn't win big ratings, so it's the audience — us — who are his codependents. Is the attention making his behavior worse? Maybe. But the media didn't invent people's urge to rubberneck at car crashes."

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And the ratings HAVE been big. ABC said its "20/20" special last week generated its biggest numbers for any ABC newsmagazine telecast since February 2009, among adults 18-49 and 25-54.

So in one respect, Sheen was still winning — er, "bi-winning."

"Fame," said Boyd, the USC professor, "is perhaps as much a drug as the real drugs. And it's legal."

Or, to quote another tweet from comedian MacDonald: "I pray that someone can help (at sign)CharlieSheen before he becomes even more successful, richer and happier."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Sheen vows to fight for his boys in court

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Timeline: Charlie Sheen's ups and downs

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Photos: Charlie Sheen

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  1. Family affair

    Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen's real-life father plays Martin, on Charlie's show "Anger Management." (FX) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Smoking man

    Sheen, left, holds a necrotic lung affected by tobacco use and a healthy lung as he talks to Dr. Oz during a taping of "The Dr. Oz Show," in New York. Sheen, who is a heavy smoker, also discussed his manic behavior and anger issues in the January 2013 episode. (Barbara Nitke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Star power

    Sheen, left, speaks as former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on July 10, 2012 in Hollywood, Calif. (Joe Klamar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Play ball!

    Sheen acknowledges the fans before throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on July 7, 2012 in San Diego. (Denis Poroy / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. In the hot seat

    Comedy Central roasted Sheen in one of their infamous specials on Sept. 10, 2011. (Christopher Polk / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Enter the Warlock

    Sheen shows off his Detroit Tigers jersey during his performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on Saturday, April 2, 2011. Promising "the real story," the 45-year-old former "Two and a Half Men" star hit the road for a month-long, 20-city variety show tour, with the first stop a sold-out show in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Thumbs down

    A Sheen fan offers her review while leaving the Fox Theatre in Detroit on April 2, 2011. (Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The gang's all here

    Sheen, second from left, is joined by Joey Scoleri of Live Nation, left, and "goddesses" Bree Olson and Natalie Kenly, right, at the after party for his Chicago tour stop at Enclave on April 3, 2011. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Blood thirst

    Charlie Sheen is seen on the rooftop of the Live Nation building drinking "Tiger Blood" in Beverly Hills, Calif., on March 7, 2011. The "Two and a Half" men star was fired from the show earlier in the day by Warner Bros. (Jean Baptiste Lacroix / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Two for one

    Sheen poses with the two women he refers to as his "goddesses" in the kitchen of his Los Angeles home during the first week of March 2011. Natalie "Natty" Kenly, left, a model, and Rachel Oberlin, aka porn star Bree Olsen, gained fame during the actor's media blitz over his fight with CBS and Warner Bros. television. (Michael Austin / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Plenty to say

    Adult film star Capri Anderson, the woman who was in Charlie Sheen's hotel room the night he allegedly trashed his suite, talks with ABC about the incident. Claiming to have feared for her life upon being locked in the bathroom, Capri said, "I'm not going to stand down and be completely be walked over." Anderson filed a harassment lawsuit, Sheen then countersued for extortion, and the case was dropped. (ABC via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Before the storm

    Sheen joins his ex wife Denise Richards and their daughters Sam and Lola in a trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Oct. 25, 2010. Their museum visit ended a weekend together in which the four of them went shopping at an American Girl store, dined at Serafina Broadway and took in the Broadway show Mary Poppins.

    Sheen was later hospitalized after he was found drunk and naked with an alleged escort in his trashed room at The Plaza hotel. Damages to the room reportedly totaled $7,000. The actor's rep later said Sheen had had an allergic reaction to medication. (INFphoto.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Back to rehab

    Sheen, second from right, arrives with his attorney Richard Cummins, second from left, for a sentencing hearing at the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen, Colo., on Aug. 2, 2010. Sheen was sentenced under a plea deal to get a 30-day sentence to be "administered and executed" at Promises rehab facility in Malibu, Calif., for assaulting his wife Brooke Mueller during an alcohol-fueled Christmas Day quarrel in Aspen. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. See you in a month

    Sheen, right, leaves the Pitkin County Courthouse with his attorney Richard Cummins in Aspen, Colo., on Monday, June 7, 2010. A sentencing hearing for the actor in his domestic assault case against wife Brooke Mueller was continued until July 12. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. More troubles

    Sheen's Mercedes was apparently stolen from his Shermon Oaks, Calif., home in early 2010. It was found overturned hundreds of feet down a nearby cliff. On June 15, 2010, police reported a second Mercedes suffered the same fate. (Gus Ruelas / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Not-so-merry Christmas

    Brooke Mueller Sheen called police on Christmas Day, 2009, reporting that Sheen attacked and threatened her. (Riccardo S. Savi / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Got my designs on you

    Sheen has collaborated with the owner of the Rock & Roll Religion clothing line to create a line of shirts called the DaVinci Collection by Charlie Sheen. Sheen's "Two and a Half Men" character wears similar shirts. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Viva ALMA!

    Sheen, born Carlos Estevez, captured the outstanding male performance in a comedy TV series award at the 2008 ALMA Awards. The honors are given to Latino performers who promote positive portrayals of Latinos in the entertainment field. Sheen's paternal grandparents were Spanish, his maternal grandparents Irish. (Frank Micelotta / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Trying marriage again

    In 2008, Sheen married real-estate investor Brooke Mueller, seen here with Sheen and his daughters, Sam and Lola. The couple's twins, Bob and Max, were born on March 14, 2009. A Christmas Day fight that same year has sent Sheen's latest round of marital woes back into the tabloids. (Donato Sardella / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Play clothes for the posh

    Fashion executive Michael Berens, Sheen and clothing designer Suzanne Ciulla pose with children wearing clothes from Sheen Kidz, a couture children’s sportswear inspired by Sheen’s daughters, Sam and Lola. (Donato Sardella / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A 'Platoon' reunited

    Actor Willem Dafoe, director Oliver Stone, an unidentified guest, Sheen and Tom Berenger reunited for a screening of their classic film "Platoon" at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival in France. (Francois Durand / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. 'Bounce' back

    Sheen starred in "The Big Bounce," a critical flop, in 2004. Although the film was based on a novel by Elmore Leonard and features Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman in addition to Sheen, it was a disaster, and cost $50 million to make. It earned back only $6 million. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Men, men, men, men, manly men

    Sheen and Jon Cryer play brothers with opposite temperaments in the CBS hit comedy "Two and a Half Men." Sheen reportedly earns $825,000 per episode on the show. (CBS via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Till divorce do us part

    Sheen married actress Denise Richards in 2002, and they had two daughters, Sam and Lola. Richards filed for divorce in 2005, and the details of their marriage, estrangement and custody battle quickly became tabloid fodder. Richards accused Sheen of abusing drugs and alcohol, and threatening her with violence. (Robert Mora / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Keep the Globe spinning

    In 2002, Sheen won the Golden Globe Award for best performance by an actor in a television comedy or musical series for his role in "Spin City." (Scott Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Putting a 'Spin' on things

    Sheen, shown with Barry Bostwick and Heather Locklear, played Charlie Crawford on "Spin City" from 2000 to 2002. As he does in "Two and a Half Men," Sheen played a character with the same first name as himself. Tony Danza Syndrome, perhaps? (ABC via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. X marks the film

    Sheen teamed again with brother Emilio Estevez to play real-life brothers Jim and Artie Mitchell in 2000's "Rated X." The Mitchells were pioneers in the pornography and strip-club industries in San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s. (Showtime via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. In court

    Drug issues have troubled Sheen for years. In 1998, he appeared in a Malibu, Calif., courtroom, where a judge ruled that the actor, who nearly died of a drug overdose five months before, could be released from his rehabilitation facility. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. He'll be there for you

    Sheen kisses Lisa Kudrow in his appearance on the hit show "Friends" in 1996. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Geronimo!

    In 1994's "Terminal Velocity," Sheen starred with Nastassja Kinski in a film about a skydiver who apparently dies on her first jump, but turns out to have faked her death. (Walt Disney Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Family of stars

    Sheen, father Martin Sheen and brother Emilio Estevez unveil Charlie's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. (Jim Smeal / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. All for one, and one for all

    Sheen played Aramis, one of "The Three Musketeers," in the 1993 film version of Alexandre Dumas' classic story. Kiefer Sutherland played Athos, Oliver Platt played Porthos, and Chris O'Donnell played D'Artagnan, who longs to join the trio. (Walt Disney Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Daddy and daughter

    Sheen and his daughter, Cassandra Jade Estevez, attended the 1992 premiere of "The Mighty Ducks." Sheen was just 19 when Cassandra was born. (Ron Galella / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Mullet man

    In the comedy spoofs "Hot Shots" and "Hot Shots Part Deux," Sheen plays Navy pilot Topper Harley. "Part Deux" parodies the action-movie genre, particularly the Rambo films. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Brothers at work

    Sheen and brother Emilio Estevez teamed up in 1990's "Men at Work," about two garbage collectors who discover a corpse. (Triumph Releasing) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Three strikes, yer out

    Sheen, right, and Tom Berenger starred in 1989's "Major League," a comedy about a fictionalized version of the Cleveland Indians. Sheen played Ricky Vaughn, an out-of-control pitcher who improves once he gets glasses. (Paramount via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Bang, bang, my baby shot me down

    In 1990, before Kelly Preston wed John Travolta, she was engaged to Sheen, who gave her a 2.5 carat pink diamond engagement ring. The engagement ended shortly after he accidentally shot her in the arm, causing a wound that required stitches. (Ron Galella / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Guns blazing

    Sheen, middle right, and Emilio Estevez, front, starred with Lou Diamond Phillips, Kiefer Sutherland, Casey Siemaszko and Dermot Mulroney in 1988's Western, "Young Guns." (20th Cenury Fox via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Greed is good

    Sheen starred in 1987's "Wall Street," where he plays Bud Fox, a young, ambitious trader who falls under the spell of ruthless millionaire Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas. Reportedly Sheen and director Oliver Stone parted ways after Stone approached Sheen to star in "Born on the Fourth of July," but then cast Tom Cruise without telling Sheen. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Fighting the war outside and the war inside

    In 1986's "Platoon," Sheen, center, starred with Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger in Stone's critically lauded Vietnam War movie. The film was based on Stone's own war experiences, and is regularly listed by critics as one of the best war films ever made. (Orion Pictures via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Putting the moves on Ferris Bueller's sister

    Sheen and Jennifer Grey starred in 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," with Grey playing Ferris Bueller's snotty sister Jeanie and Sheen a rebel she meets at the police station. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. WOLVERINES!

    Sheen got his movie start in 1984's "Red Dawn." His fellow young stars included Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey. (MGM) Back to slideshow navigation
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