NEW YORK -- I'm beginning to envision a tragic conclusion to the whole Britney Spears media circus: The Hollywood paparazzi seem determined to hound her until she is dead.
This may sound extreme, but I don't believe it's so far-fetched. Remember what happened to Anna Nicole Smith and Princess Diana? Even if you don't blame the paparazzi for Smith's demise, there is no way to defend their glee in exploiting her fame after she died. See related video.
Sure, it's pathetic that these gossip hounds would want to make a buck by inflicting misery on someone simply because he or she is famous. Public figures like Spears, who find new and exotic ways to make "news" all the time, are manna from heaven for the photographers who follow them 24/7.
For sure, the paparazzi are as old as Hollywood itself. But the current crop has gone far beyond the bounds of professional behavior, not to mention good taste, human decency -- or any of those fuddy-duddy values.
I know the counter-argument by heart, too. Spears shouldn't be declared a victim in this debate. After all, the 26-year-old pop star thrives on the commotion and luxuriates in the attention. She needs the hype to advance her flagging career. It also must be a kick for her to realize that this small-town girl from Louisiana is one of the world's most famous people.
There's also another reason to resent these stars: their handlers. Celebrities have battalions of high-priced publicists who will trot out their clients whenever they have a new CD, movie or TV show to promote. Anything short of a vehicular-manslaughter charge seems to count as good publicity these days.
Still, enough is enough.
The paparazzi aren't interested in covering Spears' story with any acknowledgement of her right to privacy. The fiasco has spiraled completely out of control, well beyond the bounds of acceptable good taste by any reasonable standard. What's especially unfortunate is that her two small children will eventually pay a big price.
The gossip hounds answer that they are fulfilling a legitimate purpose by catering to the public's endless desire to see photos of Spears -- the more salacious or embarrassing, the better. They say that they are entitled to do their work because magazines like People, Us Weekly, the National Enquirer and OK! will routinely pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for coveted shots of celebrities.
Somehow, though, I don't suppose John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman ever envisioned such an inventive twist on the economic principle of supply and demand.
As even casual spectators to the madness know, the Spears saga keeps getting stranger and stranger. Nothing is out of bounds any more.
Once, onlookers debated whether her good-girl image could last. As she scrambled to sustain the media's interest and boost the sales of her CDs, she became a full-blown Media Curiosity. After a while, it wasn't enough for her to churn out big-selling CDs and embark on sold-out concert tours. She had to take the next step of becoming a freak show, having a Vegas marriage that lasted about 10 minutes, a stint in rehab and photos of her cutting her hair off and bashing a car with an umbrella.
It was as if she aced a graduate-level course called Madonna 399 because she completely grasped the Material Girl's law of always giving the public more and more thrills. (The apex of this was reached when Britney and Madonna smooched during the Grammys a few years back.) The difference: Madonna controlled her image much more masterfully. She always reinvented her look with each new album release or movie. But I don't ever remember her being portrayed as being out of control.
By now, the Spears story involves suspicions of unbalanced behavior, child custody and other legal matters, a career in free fall and a family in crisis. Naturally, the spotlight has drawn some strange participants.
Television's favorite family therapist, Dr. Phil McGraw, intruded into the proceedings earlier this month, too, elevating the stakes for people who can't get enough of Spears news. It didn't really matter that many accounts claimed that Dr. Phil wasn't welcome in Spears' inner circle. He made news, too.
The Spears train wreck is so fascinating and lucrative that it has ensnared the mainstream media, too. CNN's "Larry King Live," no stranger to tabloid television segments, examined the psychodrama in gruesome detail on Monday night.
This story seems destined to end badly for Britney Spears. If indeed the paparazzi hound her into an early grave, you can count on them to go on "Larry King Live" and the like, express their distress and offer sympathy to the Spears clan.
But they'll mostly just feel sorry for themselves -- because they've killed the golden goose.