Terror and the Tabs

In the middle of the week, when the Florida anthrax scare was first starting to look like a real crisis, The New York Times said in an editorial: "Those who think the evidence points toward terrorism note that the contaminated building was close to an airport used for flight training by the terrorists, and that tabloids housed in the building had published cover articles highly critical of Osama bin Laden. But whether the bin Laden network would consider a supermarket tabloid a fit target seems dubious."

The paper didn't state exactly why this seemed dubious, but it didn't have to. In order to grasp The Times's point—and glimpse an essential truth about the current media hierarchy—the reader need only note the use of one small word: "fit."

After hitting two symbols of national potency, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, why on Earth would the terrorists go after what many view as a symbol of national weakness? American Media Inc., the Florida-based company that employed both the anthrax victim and another man subsequently reported to have been exposed to the disease, owns the newspapers that all right-thinking Americans love to hate. Surely, you don't read them—one doesn't, does one?—but just as surely, you know their names: The National Enquirer, Star, Globe, Sun, National Examiner, and Weekly World News, home of the Elvis-Is-Alive-on-the-Moon school of journalism.

On the surface, it's easy to see what The Times was getting at. As this column went to press, it was not known if there was any connection between the anthrax cases and terrorism. But if terrorists were targeting an American media organization, you'd expect them to pick an object of national pride and prestige. The Times itself, or some other top-flight newspaper or broadcast news operation, seems a much more "fit" target for terrorism than the shabby tabbies.

Still, there are several reasons why it seems entirely possible that American Media would come into the sights of the Al Qaeda terrorists. There's no question the tabs are dirt-dishing guttersnipes, but if you look closely, they are other things, too:

1. Osama-Bashers. Vengeance for bin Laden's bad press in the tabs is the obvious motivation alluded to by The Times and reported in many other publications. The tabloids, which are unashamedly patriotic in normal times, have shifted into high gear since the attacks. They instantly recognized this war as a story in their line and have reported on it with relish. Casual grocery-line browsers of the tabs might have been surprised in recent weeks to see Osama bin Laden replace Tom Cruise as a cover subject, but tab aficionados knew it made perfect sense. "Bin Laden Exposed!" says the headline of the October 9 issue of the Globe, with a huge picture of the terrorist leader sitting in what appears to be a library. Inside is a special "America the Brave" section, with a story that claims bin Laden is addicted to opium and "has a vicious hatred for women," which allows him to condone gang rape by his men. One unnamed "expert" says: "If this evil man had his way, all women around the world—except his four wives and concubines—would be treated like animals."

Meanwhile, the October 16 issue of The National Enquirer has an enthusiastic feature piece on a new novelty product: toilet paper with Osama bin Laden's face on every sheet. "Now You Can Wipe the Smile Off Bin Laden's Face," says the headline—one you probably won't see in The New York Times.

The tabs may not be the most prestigious of American news outlets, but they have been the most aggressive in going after bin Laden. And unlike some top papers, such as The Washington Post, American Media's properties have large national circulations and are a direct pipeline to working-class America.

2. Cultural Proxies. Because of their Hollywood fixation, the tabs are also a symbol of the excesses of American culture, a culture that Muslim extremists are said to abhor. When you pick up The Times and other American broadsheets, they don't look especially representative of a particular civilization; they look just like newspapers do all over the world. But with all those American celebs decorating their pages, the tabs just scream "America," and could easily be construed as symbols of U.S. cultural decadence.

3. Pillars of Western Morality. The supermarket tabs are the media's favorite whipping boy, symbols of everything that's wrong with journalism, especially the lowering of standards and the national obsession with scandal. They don't subscribe to journalistic ethics—they even pay sources for stories, a practice that is utterly verboten at mainstream outlets. This is all true enough. What those who detest the tabs often fail to recognize, however, is that while tab journalism isn't super-ethical, the content of the papers is actually all about ethics. In covering movie stars and other celebrities, the scandal sheets enforce a very precise, and populist, moral code. Famous people who turn out to be liars, philanderers, cheats, or—especially—hypocrites, are punished mercilessly, their sins trumpeted week after week. To be declared a phony by the tabs, as the wildly despised Kathie Lee Gifford was several years ago, is to be tagged with modern America's equivalent of the Scarlet Letter.

Now, the tabs' newest grand hypocrite is none other than Osama bin Laden. The Star reported on its cover that he "shames his [Islamic] faith." One quoted source, a man identified as a former CIA agent, claims, "Despite his image of being very Muslim, he leads a very hedonistic lifestyle."

Not a "fit" target? Let's hope so. But since when were terrorists so choosy about those they kill?