Two Thoughts on Tabloids

September 21, 2009

Recently I was in a group discussing a New York Times article about the fruit of John Edwards’s affair.  I was struck by The National Enquirer‘s cameo in the article:

Mr. Edwards dismissed an initial report in The National Enquirer in 2007 that he was having an affair, and the matter was largely ignored by the mainstream news media. But in July 2008, The Enquirer published an article with photographs of a clandestine meeting Mr. Edwards had with Ms. Hunter and her daughter in a Los Angeles hotel. Days later, Mr. Edwards acknowledged the affair to “Nightline” on ABC, offering contrition but insisting that the child could not be his because of the timing and brevity of their intimacy.

In other words, The National Enquirer played a role (right or wrong—as the courts would say, I express no opinion here on whether it should) in the investigation and exposure of real news.  (Again, amorally, I’ll define “real” news here as “news that later gets covered—i.e., judged newsworthy and fit to print—by mainstream media like Nightline on ABC or The New York Times“.)  Honestly, I had no idea—I thought tabloids were only good for stories about the Pope narrowly dodging a meteorite, or Bat Boy, or completely made-up celebrity gossip.  Now I’m wondering how much of what the tabloids say is true—1%? 5%? 40%?  Should we all be reading the tabloids to supplement our normal news intake, just in case they accidentally scoop something else that actually happened?   Probably none of us will, because they are still, after all, just tabloids.  If 40% of what they said were true, I’m sure it would all be in the celebrity-gossip category—I bet they have about a 0% accuracy rate in their more Pope-and-meteorite-type stories.  On the other hand, the second thing that really struck me in this article was how far from a tabloid The New York Times wasn’t, persuading Mrs. Edwards’s friends to reveal presumably personal confidences and such minute, up-to-the-minute details as whether she “resist[s]” her husband’s admitting paternity (she “has yet to be brought around”—further bulletins as events warrant!).  Unless, as one observer suggests, this represents “managed leaks”, the Times is wading into the celebrity-gossip mud, employing the overused tool of journalistic confidentiality to destroy actual personal confidentiality, and giving it a place on the front page.

Sure, few other tabloids’ front-page headlines would include words like “drama builds”—certainly not “dénouement”—but that’s only skin-deep.  I’m sure the sophisticated New York reader would blanch at the garish colors and low-budget photographs in the supermarket tabloids, too, but none of this necessarily implies a moral distinction; you might as well call Governor Spitzer or Mr. Edwards a virtuous man because he doesn’t go for the dime prostitute in inner-city Cincinnati.  (OK, I guess this commentary isn’t completely morally neutral.)

No wonder the Times can’t find the time to mention Obama’s Communist czar (now former czar), Van Jones (in his own words, “I met all these young radical people of color [in jail]—I mean really radical, communists and anarchists. And it was, like, ‘This is what I need to be a part of.'”; “By August, I was a communist.”  I know, I know, some of you think if The New York Times hasn’t mentioned it, it hasn’t happened, but this is according to the East Bay Express—yes, “Bay” as in “San Francisco Bay”—a member of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and in any case no right-wing rag—just look at a couple of its articles), or the new propaganda wing of the Obama administration—but that’s a story for another post.

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