The Tabloid Habit

Relentless celebrity coverage is a phenomenon as old as the movies

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!'"

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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.

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