When the Famous Fight, Public Can't Get Enough

From the minute-by-minute coverage, the headlines, the updates, the score cards, you would think it was some election, some invasion, at least something important. But no, this was Rosie O'Donnell versus Donald Trump, a classic example of a celebrity feud.

We will spare you the details or the latest he said/she said update. If you don't know already, you have been living under a rock. But for its entertainment value, Harvey Levin, the managing editor of TMZ.com says, "Donald Trump, Rosie O'Donnell, you love them, you hate them, then they mix it up. This is just A-plus stuff."

These celebrity feuds have become such a common phenomenon, they are their own whole genre in American culture.

'Real Life Soap Operas'

"I think the best feuds are when you hate somebody one day and suddenly you think, 'huh, I hate the other person even more,'" saysTMZ's Levin. "That is what is so fun about it. When there are these public feuds and nobody is really gonna get hurt, it just becomes like a real-life soap opera."

Celebrity feuds have a long, not-so-illustrious history. Joan Crawford called Bette Davis a phony, and Davis rejoiced in Crawford's death. Ex-Disney honcho Michael Eisner once said of studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, "I hate the little midget." (Disney is the parent company of ABC News.)

Tom Cruise battled Brooke Shields over antidepressants. You have the infantile -- like Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan -- and you have the obscure.

"Elvis Presley and Robert Goulet. Elvis hated Robert Goulet. Couldn't stand watching him on TV, and I just think that is hilarious," says Levin. "Honestly, with all due respect to Robert Goulet, he is no Elvis Presley, but he just bugged Presley."

Legal Repercussions

In just the last few months, there has been a bloodbath between Fox chief Rupert Murdoch and publishing empress Judith Regan. Murdoch fired Regan after the cancellation of the O.J. Simpson book and TV special, "If I Did It," in which he promised to explain how he would have killed his wife had he actually done it.

In that case, Regan has threatened to sue Murdoch's News Corp. for libel over its claim that she made anti-Semitic comments.

Which begs the question in these knock-down, drag-out brawls: How much can you say before you get yourself in legal trouble?

Floyd Abrams is one of the pre-eminent First Amendment lawyers in the country. He says that as far as the law is concerned, you can pretty much say what you want -- especially about public figures -- as long as you don't know that it is false.

"That sort of name calling, where no one would really understand it to mean any more than 'he's a bad guy' or 'he's a pain' or something like that, we don't usually allow libel suits for that," explains Abrams. "Libel suits are supposed to protect somebody against false statements of fact. Fact … not opinion. Fact … not hyperbole. And so where it's a sort of name calling, a lot of libel suits get thrown out on that ground alone."

'Silly People Who Think They Run the World'

What does Abrams think when he sees these fights?

Abrams says, "Oh, sometimes I think we're just talking about silly people who basically think they run the world and therefore don't accept the notion that there's really something called freedom of speech, even if it hurts them."

So why do they do it at all? Harvey Levin has a one-word answer: "Ego." He says, "I think that a lot of celebrities make the mistake of trying to manage their image so much, that if someone says something off-kilter, it just sets them off."

And beyond uncontrolled ego, there might be some very controlled publicity. "Honestly, the biggest fear that celebrities have is becoming irrelevant," says Levin. "Nobody wants to become a Gabor sister."

The Gabor sisters, says Levin, "used to be really hot and really famous, and people wrote about them a lot, and the suddenly, it's like 'who cares,' and that is the worst thing for a celebrity to hear."

How Much Is Too Much?

Maybe just maybe, celebrities can stay relevant, stay in the news, by fighting.

"I think people recognize that people like Rosie O'Donnell, like Donald Trump, are very shrewd about publicity," says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant. "The endgame of whatever they do is often to get on TV."

But sometimes, in the craven drive to stay relevant, there is a risk. Ratings for the premiere of Donald Trump's show, "The Apprentice," when measured in total viewers, were down from year ago. Perhaps you can go too far.

"I think these celebrity battles serve to remind people how little in common celebrities have with the rest of us," warns Dezenhall. "They operate in a totally different galaxy, and it ultimately doesn't make them look good. But it is entertaining for us to be reminded from time to time that they live on another planet."

Maybe the ultimate social commentary was provided this week by World Wrestling Entertainment, which staged a bout between a fake Rosie O'Donnell and a fake Donald Trump. It's true that a celebrity might want to avoid becoming a Gabor sister, but on the other hand, what celebrity wants that?