Books July 2001

The Tabloid Habit

Relentless celebrity coverage is a phenomenon as old as the movies
More

It takes about a quarter of an hour to read a copy of The National Enquirer if you skip, as I do, the medical-breakthrough stories and the regular feature called "Next Week on Your Favorite Soaps" and zero in on the celebrity gossip—and I have never found this time to be wasted. Although I make silent, unkept pledges to cancel my subscriptions to People (the better part of an hour) and Vanity Fair (two evenings), The National Enquirer delivers the shameful goods so directly and with so few niceties—no Graydon Carter essay on Cartier-Bresson—that I can buzz through the whole thing and have it smashed down in the recycling bin before my husband has a chance to catch me in the act.

I began reading the tabloids during the O. J. Simpson case, which I followed closely, and which The National Enquirer so thoroughly dominated that even The New York Times quoted it as a source. The Simpson coverage I read in the Enquirer (and also in the Globe, which revived a venerable tabloid tradition: publishing autopsy photographs) was interesting, but the rest of these papers' contents surprised and intrigued me more. Before I started reading supermarket tabloids, my only sense of their editorial content had come from the old "Enquiring Minds" television commercials, so I had expected when I bought my first copy of the Enquirer—sheepishly, half prepared to be scolded by the clerk—to find stories about Elvis sightings and alien abductions. Instead I found page after page of grainy photographs in which clearly recognizable, very famous people were doing very ordinary things: sipping Starbucks coffee and dragging reluctant toddlers along sidewalks and tugging in irritation at the snug hems of unflattering bathing suits. Many of the pictures were of such poor quality that it seemed they had been taken as part of some kind of stakeout; they had the nature of private-eye photographs slowly developing in a chemical bath, and this greatly added to the sense that they really were somehow "explosive" and "revealing." For the past several years the tabloids have held me in a kind of demi-thrall, and rare is the week when I don't read at least one of them. What curious things I've seen along the way: Faye Dunaway in rollers waiting for cash at a poky ATM; Catherine Zeta-Jones exchanging what looks to be insurance information with a Volvo driver come afoul of her supertanker SUV; Maria Shriver stepping smartly out of mass while her husband trots behind her. Occasionally the photographs are of a quite different nature; occasionally they are—to use a tabloid word—so shocking that I can't believe it's legal even to take them, let alone to print them. But this has not, I confess, stopped me from looking at them.

The past few years, of course, have found the supermarket tabloids being held accountable for any number of cultural woes, only one of which is the death of Princess Diana. There is a sense that the general, indisputable coarsening of our common cultural life is in some way connected to the tabloids and what they represent, a sense based on a tacit assumption that the present mania for salacious details about the private lives of celebrities is a recent, lamentable aberration of public taste. In fact it is a phenomenon as old as the movies. In August of 1911 Motion Picture Story Magazine introduced an immediately popular column devoted to fan queries: "Answer Man." Although it maintained a strict policy against answering those questions deemed overly intrusive into the lives of the players, readers routinely sent in such questions in large numbers. Why the movies should engender this kind of interest is a thorny question, but surely it must have something to do with the strange and unique power they hold over their viewers. Geoffrey O'Brien has written a book on this subject, The Phantom Empire (1993); one of its epigraphs says as much about the complexity of his subject as anything in the text itself. It's from the description of a visit to the movies in The Magic Mountain.

But when the last flicker of the last picture in a reel had faded away, when the lights in the auditorium went up, and the field of vision stood revealed as an empty sheet of canvas, there was not even applause. Nobody was there to be applauded, to be called before the curtain and thanked for the rendition. The actors who had assembled to present the scenes they had just enjoyed were scattered to the winds; only their shadows had been here.

Images of movie stars, at once lifelike and spectral, and consisting, for most people, of only so much colored light or newsprint, have loomed over us for a century now. On some level the need of fans to see evidence of the actual flesh-and-bone existence of these phantoms must account for a wide variety of phenomena, not the least of which is The National Enquirer.

The famous, however, do not seem to embrace their role in this established tradition of obsessive fan interest. Rather, they report (regularly and with some pique) that it's hell on earth to be hounded by the tabloids' telephoto-lens wielding ruffians—not to mention dangerous. The car crash that killed Princess Diana became their galvanizing incident, their Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and they organized around it quickly, a brand-new oppressed minority consisting entirely of movie and television stars and the more photogenic members of the royal houses of Europe. What they wanted was a boycott of the tabloids and other outlets for paparazzi photographs. George Clooney emerged as a sort of Cesar Chavez of the famous, and the movement began to pick up speed. As rallying cries go, "Celebrities of the World, Unite!" was not one I imagined would garner much grassroots support, but the letters column of People magazine seemed to suggest that a good deal of sympathy did indeed exist for this new underclass, who were so downtrodden by the demands of the worldwide market for Hot Celeb Pics that they were forced to escape wearying photo ops in speeding limousines helmed by blotto chauffeurs. Diana's death brought about a period of intense sobriety and loudly proclaimed remorse in the tabloids. The infamous death-scene photographs, which almost certainly exist, and which in any other climate would have been splashed across every tabloid in the known world, became untouchable, unprintable. Steve Coz, The National Enquirer's young, Harvard-educated editor, went on the offensive, appearing on Sunday-morning news programs after the crash in an attempt to distance the Enquirer from other, more brutal tabloids that had made the late Princess's life so hellish. It was difficult, however, to believe that the publication was blameless, given that the issue of the Enquirer still on the supermarket racks the night Diana died bore the headline "DI GOES SEX MAD: 'I CAN'T GET ENOUGH!'"

So intense was public outrage at the tabloids in the wake of the Paris disaster that their very future seemed for a few weeks to hang in the balance. The Enquirer and the rest of the gang, one began to suspect, were going to have to either fold or reinvent themselves completely—something they had done many times before. The quite fascinating history of these many incarnations—only the most recent of which is purely celebrity-driven—is the subject of a new book about the tabloids, I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby!, by Bill Sloan, who has held editorial positions at both the Enquirer and the Globe. This exhaustive yet curiously fat book (did Sloan learn nothing about captivating prose during his tenure at the tabloids?) begins, of course, with the Kahuna of American tabloid publishing: Generoso Pope, the founder of The National Enquirer. Pope bought the old New York Enquirer in 1952 and struggled at first with what exactly to put in it—not much celebrity coverage, certainly, because that side of the street was thoroughly patrolled by the scandal magazines of the day. But then Pope had a Eureka moment, one that shaped his editorial policy for years to come. He described it to a fellow journalist this way: "I noticed how auto accidents drew crowds." Leading with whatever carnage his staff could dredge up (an early tabloid editor is said to have boiled it down during one headline-writing session to "he rape, kill her"), and with gruesome photographs available on the cheap from New York cops and morgue employees, Pope soon had a hit on his hands—and also a slew of imitators, including a Canadian paper called Midnight, which later became The National Enquirer's powerful rival the Globe.

The tabloids were soon flourishing. Not until the late 1960s, when these papers relocated from America's rapidly disappearing newsstands to its thriving supermarkets, did they begin to court a mostly female audience and to lay the groundwork for what they are today. For much of the 1970s and early 1980s the tabloids took the form of self-proclaimed "family weeklies," filled with what a Washington Post editor once characterized as SMERSH: Science, Medicine, Education, Religion and all that Shit. Gradually, however, they evolved into their present form: compendia of intimately reported movie-star gossip, celebrity scandals, and "gotcha" photographs. The time was right for such an incarnation. In the past few years stars have come to enjoy a huge amount of control over stories printed about them in the legitimate press. Often they are granted approval of writers, of interviewers' questions, of photographers. As a former writer for Premiere magazine told the Los Angeles Times, "There are more magazines than there are celebrities to go around. Given the law of supply and demand, it's out of control—it's a seller's market." Studio-driven publicity machines pump carefully crafted stories into countless unchallenging glossy magazines—virtually creating a concomitant market for stories of a less anodyne nature, such as those on offer in the tabloids.

As Sloan points out, Diana's death turned out to have no lasting effect on the tabloids. For a brief period after the crash they were much cleaner (and markedly less entertaining), but in relatively short order they drifted back to their old ways, and the fleeting, remarkable period in which common folk manned the barricades in behalf of Hollywood royalty ended quietly. On the whole, the public's attitude toward intrusive celebrity coverage has reverted to what it was before the accident. This attitude was summed up most recently in a couple of sentences from a Los Angeles Times editorial by the journalist Norah Vincent which appeared shortly before the Academy Awards broadcast: "In exchange for fabulous wealth, worldwide fame and the public's undying adulation, they've got to put up with the paparazzi following them into the toilet. This seems a fair, if Faustian, bargain." The Faustian-bargain theory is one that has long been advanced to explain the intensity of fan interest in the private lives of famous people, and it holds water. To be complicit, as all movie stars are, in the powerful projection of oneself into the imaginative lives of millions of people—including countless screwballs and thugs along with curious housewives like me—is to engender an ongoing fascination with one's life as led offscreen. Enter the tabloids, whose editors clearly understand that to seek fame so assiduously, to hire publicists to lobby for one's interview with Kevin Sessums (and the semi-nude photographs taken to accompany it), to make not the hinter pages but the cover of Vanity Fair, to appear in states of simulated arousal and actual undress in blockbuster movies released on thousands of screens across the globe and supported by literally hundreds of press-junket interviews, is also to occasion interest in photographs of oneself picking up the newspaper from the front porch or quarreling with one's spouse outside a restaurant or emerging cautiously from a hotel's service entrance.

Reasonable as it is, however, I have never found this simple equation sufficient to account for either the enduring nature of this kind of fan interest or its peculiar savagery. Neal Gabler, in his exhaustive biography of Walter Winchell (who, of course, invented the kind of reporting that the tabloids currently practice), came much closer, I think, when he said that Winchell "understood that gossip, far beyond its basic attraction as journalistic voyeurism, was a weapon of empowerment for the reader." Gabler continued, "Invading the lives of the famous and revealing their secrets brought them to heel. It humanized them, and in humanizing them demonstrated that they were no better than we and in many cases worse." Winchell, raised in poverty and achieving prominence during the Great Depression, cultivated a core audience not unlike that for the modern-day supermarket tabloids: working-class people both fascinated by the rich and ravenous for their demise—or, at least, for their humiliation.

One need look no further than the advertisements in a few issues of the Enquirer to get a clear sense that its audience does not necessarily enjoy life at the top of the economic heap. There are ads for cockroach poison, for ladies' knit slacks at $5.00 a pair, for telephone legal advice for $2.99 a minute. The scandal magazines of the 1950s, which served up celebrity stories every bit as caustic and low-minded as those in today's tabloids (according to a 1957 story in the Los Angeles Times, they regarded "a Hollywood bedroom as the center of American cultural interest"), were filled with ads directed at readers of a similar social class. "I WON'T be a CLERK all my life—I don't HAVE to!" declared the first full-page ad in a 1957 issue of Confidential. Generally speaking, the more upmarket an entertainment magazine hopes to be, the better the treatment it gives celebrities it covers.

If seeing the rich dragged down to ankle level makes for satisfying reading, then show-business folk are in for particularly rough treatment, because they seem to engage in more than their fair share of scandals. What messes they get themselves into! From the misadventures of Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin through Hollywood's round-robin approach to marriage and a hundred other conventionalities, stars are forever serving up new predicaments for the tabloids to bathe in and gloat over. And best of all, from a tabloid point of view, is their preference for fast cars and private planes and illegal drugs consumed in unwise quantities. Because there is no tabloid story—none—that trumps the violent death of a star. The stories that will not go away, that are revived over and over, that are capable of enlivening the slowest news week, are always the ones that involve the untimely death of the famous. People has shaped its cover-story policy around this fact. The "cover formula" begins reasonably enough: "Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly." It used to end (again, reasonably enough) with "Anything is better than politics"; but after the tremendous success of People's cover story on the 1980 death of John Lennon (and after having badly misjudged the cultural significance of Elvis Presley's 1977 demise and going to bed that week with an ill-advised Marty Feldman/Ann-Margret cover), the magazine added this final dictum: "Nothing is better than the celebrity dead."

It has been this way since the dawn of the movies. The earliest rumors to swirl around movie stars involved, to a surprising degree, completely unsubstantiated reports of their violent deaths. According to Kathryn Fuller's At the Picture Show (1996),

The Answer Man addressed such rumors frequently, resuscitating some film actor or actress in almost every issue ... Although many death rumors concerning film players may have been studio publicity "plants," the wild imaginations of movie fans spread the rumors more efficiently and effectively than film producers ever could have done.

Certainly, our national zeal for celebrity downfall is largely accounted for by the basest of human pleasures. (Kenneth Anger, in one of his well-loved Hollywood Babylon books, reminded us of a relevant quotation from La Rochefoucauld: "We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.") But the fact that the movies should so consistently produce these "wild imaginations" suggests something profound and powerful about their relationship with their viewers, something from which The National Enquirer and its fellows profit handsomely.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

When Will Robots Take Over the World?

"In a sense, we're already becoming cyborgs."


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Video

The Origins of Bungee Jumping

"We had this old potato sack and I filled it up with rocks and dropped it over the side. It just hit the water, split, dropping all the stones. And that was our test."

Video

Is Trading Stocks for Suckers?

If you think you’re smarter than the stock market, you’re probably either cheating or wrong

Video

I Spent Half My Life Making a Video Game

How a childhood hobby became a labor of love

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In