Pabulum to the General
by L. E. Sissman
It could easily be argued that the American press achieves its finest hours in magazines. Television captures, compresses, and sometimes distorts the news of the moment in pictures that move. Newspapers—in spite of the rare exception, such as the expose of Watergate—embalm the news of the day in rigid, formal, boring reams of eight-point type. But magazines, often enough to give us hope for our press and our system, lean back against their longer deadlines, survey the Brownian movements of masses of individuals, and reveal the news of the year, the decade, and the century. More, they have often made that news—in the sense of discovering trends and making them a matter of public knowledge.
Some examples. In the 1850s, this magazine provided one of America’s first forums for literacy and literature. At the turn of the century, McClure’s and others attacked the trusts and gave muckraking its good name. In the teens, Vanity Fair almost single-handedly created this country’s sense of style. In the twenties, The American Mercury discovered our insularity and crusaded against it with the weapon of laughter. In the same decade, Time found a new way to report the news—a way so terse and breezy that it made ten-day-old stories seem fresher than that morning’s turgid headlines—and The New Yorker invented a new mode of American cosmopolitanism that fused high wit with high seriousness. In the thirties, Life liberated magazine journalism from the dominance of text and made good pictures tell the story. In the forties, Holiday proved that a special-interest magazine could be well written, well edited, and well illustrated.
Then came the fifties and sixties and seventies, the season of adversity, decline, and death for many magazines. Television took over the burden, the highly lucrative burden, of advertising mass products to the masses, and magazine revenues fell away. The giants died, one by one. The smaller survivors shrank in circulation and advertising volume. Only the highly specialized hobby magazines—cars, photography, boating-seemed to prosper. Except for a proliferation of skin books, new ventures often died a-borning: the vaunted new Saturday Review, under the aegis of Messrs. Veronis and Charney, fell to pieces in a fiurry of different editions and conflicting subscription offers like a collapsing house of cards (Saturday’s long-time editor Norman Cousins has doggedly striven to fit the pieces back together into a viable publication). And, as the seventies progressed, three more pieces of bad news for magazines loomed on the near horizon. First, postal rates escalated. Second, paper supplies declined, creating a genuine shortage by the end of 1973. Third, the relationship between the press and its readers, hardly affectionate at best, slipped further downhill—with an assist from the late, unlamented Spiro Agnew—by 1972; even the sterling Hawkshaw work at the Washington Post failed to redeem the press in the eyes of a disillusioned public after Watergate.
Given all these signs and portents, warnings and omens, it might be thought that any new magazine or newspaper of the seventies would perforce have to be fresh and radical in its approach and subject matter, granitic and unassailable in its integrity. Not at all. New Times, the major new magazine entry in 1973, has not, to date, lived up to its prospectus: its stable of writers, redoubtable as they are in theory, have failed to practice their highest art in the pages of the magazine, a failure underscored by listless editing. W, the leading new contender in newspaper format, is equally a botch. Hideous typography and color like a maltuned Motorola simply serve to emphasize the thinness of the kitsch therein purveyed: endless beautiful people on an endless voyage to nowhere, about whom nobody who really matters could possibly care.
Hope springs eternal. Nineteen seventy-four begins with two new publications that, despite their designedly dated outlook and content, may well make it on the newsstands and —more importantly—having wisely decided to eschew mail subscriptions, the supermarket checkouts of America. The first is The National Star, the initial American product of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian publishing magnate who has made such a splash in London with the Sun, the most aggressive of England’s scrabrous national dailies, whose messy blend of sex, celebrities, and crime is in itself a national scandal. The National Star follows closely in the giant steps of its parent publications, measuring up nicely to the highest standards of what Fleet Street calls the tit-andbum school of journalism. In deference to American Puritanism, however, both t.’s and b.’s are decorously draped in the Star, and it follows a number of its Stateside antecedents in its format and features. The granddaddies of all scandal sheets —Hearst’s American Weekly and Bernarr Macfadden’s Daily Graphic are paid homage in the Star’s tabloid format and its accent on high crimes and high jinks; their daddy, the Daily News, is honored in such features as “Liveliest Letters—$2 for your stories” and a spate of test-yourself quizzes (“How to Know If You Are an Alcoholic”). From its lately sanitized contemporary, The National Enquirer, the Star borrows part of its name and much of its understanding of How Far to Go: though the Star contains many an innuendo, there are no out-and-out exposures of dirty words and deeds, nor are particularly gruesome crimes given houseroom.
The result is a totally aimless, totally amiable potpourri of forgettable trivia, an outfall of strained (in both senses) and pureed pabulum designed to divert the presumably mindless general public after a hard day’s work (“Chee, Mae, do my feet hurt!”). Some typical headlines tell the curious Anglo-American story of the Star: “The Exorcist Makers’ Fortune from Horror”; “Meg and Tony Feud Upsets U.S. Tour”; “The New Girl in Lennon’s Life”; “The Brave Ones: Together. Teddy and Son Are Winning the Battle of Their Lives”; “Horror Scopes—an Astrological Look at the Real You”; “Our Daughter’s a Streaker”; “Sheep Serum Deaths Probed”; “Scandals of Kids Who Must Slave for Charity.” You see what I mean. The real scandal is that foreign capitalists—or any capitalists, for that matter—can start such a cynical rag, whose sole intent is to rip off the weekly quarters of bored and undereducated sensationseekers. If there were a spark of genuine irreverence or breeziness (or anything fresh and recognizably human) to the Star, its lucrative sins might be slightly more forgivable. Alas, there is not.
But if the Star is just the newest in a series of exploitations of working-class Americans (it’s terribly easy to see it unfolded on the rumpled bed of a George Price roomer, next to the Pi-Peer Patent Truss and the empty bottle of Blatz), what are we to think of a glossier but otherwise similar hype aimed at the middle class? Saints alive, Joe, please say it isn’t so. But, by God, it is. The publishers of plump, stately Fortune and wisecracking, fiftyish Time have brought forth upon this continent a new abomination, conceived in avarice and dedicated to the proposition that there’s one born every minute. Or so it seems when you pick up a copy of People. People is an enormous stretch of the People section of Time, justly famous for its pithy bits of gossip on the great and near-. In the stretching, something has been lost: notably the astringent, faintly heckling note of Time. People is never disrespectful of its subjects; rather, it is blandly deferential. And blandness, nearing banality, is the seeming keystone of the entire enterprise. Instead of rooting out the facts behind the press-release façades, People staffers appear merely to be editing those press releases to meet the standards of the magazine’s style book: witness the early article on Tricia Nixon which purported to be the inside story of her presumably troubled marriage, as told in an exclusive People interview, and turned out to be a standard whitewashcum-denial written mainly by the White House (according to Maxine Cheshire) and released, to People’s evident embarrassment, to a women’s magazine as well.
Even the genuinely staff-researched and -written pieces won’t set any journalism reviews on fire. A cover story on Martha Mitchell, billed as the inside on “her breakup with John,” adds nothing new to Helen Thomas’ dispatches over the last year; another on Gerald Ford manages to bury its tiny scoop—the fact that Ford had promised his family not to run for office after 1975—in the second-to-last paragraph, even though it is tantalizingly blazoned on the cover and in the subhead over the article. Most of the story is tiresome padding, with such mother-loving quotations from Ford as, “I don’t want to be President because 1 want him to be President,” and, “I enjoy the press corps. I really do. We have a lot of fun.”
But the real sinfulness of People lies not in its minute news hole but in its bankrupt and banal viewpoint. Instead of the fresh, disputatious sassiness of a Time or even a Sports Illustrated, People brings to its subject matter a kind of vitiated, warmed-over National Star approach, tricked out in neat, contemporary layouts on suitably slick paper. There are many pictures and many weakly punning captions (“Two Picasso Originals Worth $20 Million,” i.e., Claude and Paloma Picasso; “Get Me a Grant,” under a photo of Cary Grant and his new girlfriend; “A Meany Smile,” under—you guessed it —a smiling George Meany), both reminiscent of the old Life, except for the fact that, while the text is as ignorable as Life’s used to be, the pictures are, too: a page-and-a-half photo of Gerald Ford holding hands with his wife is hardly the kind of probing photojournalism we expect from the heirs of Robert Capa and David Douglas Duncan. But of course we shouldn’t expect it: People was obviously designed with painful care to be empty of controversy. I append a list of article titles. Some are from The National Star, some from People. See if you can guess which is which. “The Monroe Movie That’s Under Wraps”; “The Old Presley Magic Is Still Packing Them In”; “Mailer’s Million—The Wives Are Waiting”; “A Capitalist Russia Loves”; “Marlo Thomas Sings Out Against Sexism”; “Batman Joins the Baddies”; “His Highness on Leave”; “Nixon’s Nephew Goes to Work for Vesco”; “A Mother’s War on Crib Death”; “You Gotta Believe in Tug McGraw”; “Jason Miller: ‘Exorcist’ Priest Who Quit the Church”; “The Pain and the Heartbreak End for Al Pacino.” OK, gang? Nos. 1,3,5,7,9, and 11 are, believe it or not, from People, the rest from the Star.
I needn’t continue. Except to point out that this is a time of great change and redirection in our society. A time when many institutions, mostly rightly, are being called into question not by a few dissident intellectuals but by the American millions. A time when the paper shortage—like all the other shortages—is overshadowed by a shortage of integrity. The integrity of the press, like that of the state, is exposed to a new, tough scrutiny, as perhaps it should be. In any case, it is no time to create superficial, frivolous new magazines out of the whole cloth of the profit motive and to aim them at millions of middleclass Americans who should rightfully be preoccupied with more serious issues. The immediate future of America, for one.