The tabloid-mainstream journalism continuum by Robin Mizell 8 December 1999
here is no bright line marking the point at which tabloid journalism ends and mainstream journalism begins. Rather, journalistic style ranges on a continuum from sleazy sensationalism to self-righteous muckraking to intellectual commentary, with every possible variation in between. The National Enquirer, television’s Jenny Jones, and cyber-columnist Matt Drudge are at one end; the Columbus Dispatch, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and Time magazine hover somewhere in the middle; and the Washington Post, National Public Radio News, and the Atlantic Monthly struggle to keep their footing on the high road. The particular style a news publication or broadcast develops depends on the audience to whom it’s being marketed, which is another way of saying that profit is the bottom line. A news program or periodical with the loftiest journalistic ideals will condescend to using tabloid-style teasers or hooks to attract an audience or readers. The old adage “If it bleeds, it leads” has endured, in deed if not in word, since the time of the gladiators. Journalistic style is a reflection of society and the times. Because American society has always been stratified, so have the reporters who document it. Each social segment demands and receives its own varie-
ty of news coverage. Some of us eat croissants with fresh butter and café au lait for breakfast; some of us slurp Cap’n Crunch cereal. Some of us want to read about yesterday’s trading on the New York Stock Exchange; others clamor for news of the latest speculation on the paternity of Princess Diana’s sons. If we want it and are willing to buy it, someone’s bound to give it to us. Seth Warshavsky is the wunderkind founder of the Internet Entertainment Group (IEG), a conglomerate of 50 online businesses, the most popular of which is ClubLove, a Web site that not long ago posted a video clip of celebrities Pamela Anderson Lee and Tommy Lee flagrante delicto. Says the startlingly successful Internet entrepreneur: Well, that sort of content is unique and controversial, and there’s a huge demand on the ‘Net for that kind of sensational material. My company, IEG, is kind of like a publisher. We look at ClubLove as one of our magazines, the same way that Penthouse and Playboy are magazines—or Newsweek and Time for that matter. The way we drive subscribers to our monthly publications is by providing material they want to see every time they come back.
Who seems to agree with Warshavsky? Well, the cyber mogul recently merged news and entertainment formats in a novel yet not-
so-surprising online endeavor that provides stock-market quotes illustrated with photographs of beautiful nude models. Warshavsky is banking on demographic research that indicates the audience for the Wall Street news and the X-rated entertainment is identical. As for the Lees, the United States District Court for Central California ruled the celebrity couple waived their rights to their salaciously revealing videotape when they settled with IEG out of court by signing a legal waiver in exchange for a monetary incentive to give up the fight. Warshavsky, at one end of the continuum, tells—or perhaps shows—his audience what they want to know. Toward the middle of the spectrum, Richard Clurman, the former chief of correspondents at Time-Life News Service and chairman of the board of Columbia University Seminars on Media and Society, argues that the mainstream news media exist to tell the public what it needs to know. The press, though independent of the government, became known as the fourth estate because it provided a public service that interacts in critical ways with the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The press has long been recognized for its crucial checks and balances on the power of
the state. The United States Constitution’s First Amendment clearly provides that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” “‘The power of the press’ once had an honorable ring to it. ‘Power of the media’ has a different, darker resonance,” insists Clurman (26). His years in the news business taught him that the pressures of competing to be the first to report a story, selling the story to the audience, and maintaining journalistic integrity present unique challenges that evolve as rapidly as the technology used to convey the news. In his book Beyond Malice: The Media’s Years of Reckoning, he explains: Journalists argue that their uninhibited ways have kept many public officials and others honest more than they have unfairly inflicted damage. But now with the impact, speed, and reach of the modern news media, prosecution by press has become a deeply resented problem, not satisfied by the hoary old rationalizations of journalists (“If you want a watchdog to warn you against intruders, you have to put up with a certain amount of mistaken barking”). (Clurman 62)
Is the press held accountable by the government? Journalists will tell you no; they are responsible to the public, and that is sufficient. “Their readers and viewers can chastise them simply by turning to another program or not buying their product...” says Clurman (31). Occasionally, however, the judicial system is called upon to interpret the application of the First Amendment, when reporters have stretched it beyond its limit.
Inspired by Carol Burnett’s and Clint Eastwood’s successful lawsuits against the tabloid press, a new specialty within the legal profession, tabloid litigation, is thriving. In addition to libel and defamation law, the anti-tabloid bar attempts to convince the courts to enforce privacy and trespass laws that can help protect celebrity clients from malicious journalists (Beam 64). The courts can penalize a journalist for publishing a story with a state of mind called malice, the legal term on which a libel ruling hinges. To ascertain whether malice existed, these questions, in the following order, are asked of a jury: 1. Did the statement defame the subject? 2. Was the statement untrue? 3. Did the publisher or broadcaster know it was untrue when it was printed? A no answer to any of the questions precludes a guilty verdict in a libel trial and obviates the necessity of proceeding to the next question. It is simple enough for a reporter to avoid committing libel by clearly labeling opinion as such. “The First Amendment protects expressions of opinion, however unreasonable or vituperative, since they cannot be subjected to the test of truth or falsity,” said Edward Weinfeld, a respected judge of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. “It is when the criticism takes the form of criminal or unethical conduct or derogation of professional integrity in terms subject to factual verification that the borderline between fact and opinion
has been crossed” (qtd. in Clurman 95). Clurman’s conclusion? For a journalist, “[b]eing first is no excuse for being manipulated, half-cocked, or wrong” (206). Michael Oreskes, who works for the New York Times’ Washington news bureau, echoes the caution that reporters need “straightforward and clearly articulated standards,” one of which is ensuring that their stories have, at a minimum, two separate and independent sources, the sign of a sincere attempt to overcome bias and inaccuracy (Oreskes). However, criticism of the news media encompasses much more than journalists’ legal infractions. As United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, “There is a difference between what we have a right to do and the right thing to do” (qtd. in Clurman 210). Tabloid journalism is used as an invective because, to many, the tabloids’ smarmy exploitation of vulgar culture is as distasteful as libel, though not illegal. Not only is it legal, it sells. It’s what the consumer wants. James Twitchell, the author of Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America, argues: The major audience for much of the electronic media is between 12 and 25 years of age—the age of maturation. Since the 1950s, American entertainment has proved to be so vibrant that it is extending its domain not only across different national cultures, but into folk as well as elite cultures. In other words, the rituals of adolescence are becoming the central focus of modern attention. (43)
Naturally, if the broadcast entertainment media must appeal to
adolescents and post-adolescents to sell the bulk of its advertising, then the broadcast news media need to conform to those young viewers’ tastes as well. Consequently, we have televised tabloid news such as Hard Copy and Inside Edition. To lure immature, visually stimulated consumers to print media, journalism takes the form of People magazine. Even the most conservative news media adapt to the changing demographics of their reader- and viewership. Twitchell suggests: Compare the lower half of the front page of the Times with that of 10 years ago and you will recognize the influence of the tabloids. The New York Times Company, a holding company of numerous magazines and television stations, is in the same business as Gannett or NBC; it trades its shares on a national exchange, is beholden to shareholders, and is out—first and last—to make a profit. All the news that’s fit to print comes in between. (235)
Journalists, such as Oreskes at the New York Times, insist they are struggling to reevaluate their role and their professional standards while remaining competitive in an age of booming electronic media, particularly the Internet. The more overwhelmed the public becomes with endless information supplied in myriad formats, the more obvious it will become that a journalist’s job is to sort out what is important, what people need to know, and what the information means in an objective sense. That is not the same function as determining what sells. Oreskes’ opponents argue that the culture’s evolution has led to a blurring of the distinction between
tabloid and mainstream journalism. The most obvious manifestation is the news media consumers’ apparent fascination with the private lives of public figures such as Princess Diana, O.J. Simpson, and Bill Clinton. Tabloid and mainstream journalists admit they participated in a heated competition with each other to break the stories these highprofile subjects generated. Journalists who pry into the sex lives of public figures may be justified by the presumption that an individual who seeks fame or power is fair game, or that private conduct is clearly indicative of overall integrity, morality, and in some cases fitness for public office. Speaking of politicians in particular, Michael Wolff, a media critic for New York Magazine, claims: I think that where we are coming to now is a whole new appreciation of what people are interested in. And one of the things that people are interested in, and I suppose have a right to be interested in, is sex. Or, actually, let me step back from that. They are interested in learning about the whole person. We’re really tired of seeing these dead-from-the-neckdown guys. (Wolff)
What the public and Wolff have yet to conclude is whether this noholds-barred approach to reporting provides information of any real value. Can a journalist take what was once considered trash and make it respectable? Until society decides, contemporary journalists will continue to explore the possibilities. One such exploration, a new Web publication called Tabloid.net, posts news stories with headlines that scream “Waco’s Lesson: Cops Shouldn’t Kill Whites” in a brazen
effort to capitalize on vulgarity and pander to prejudice. Its editors are trying to take readers away from the traditional news media as the Internet rapidly becomes a mass market. They hope that Tabloid.net’s brash style—which Steve Outing, writing for Editor and Publisher Interactive, another Internet presence, says: …in some ways harks back to the “old days” when newspapers like the Herald-Examiner in Los Angeles reveled in sensational headlines as the means to outdo the competition—will attract news consumers who have abandoned newspapers because they because they are too boring and TV news because it’s so shallow and crime- and celebrity-ridden. (Outing)
The two editors of Tabloid.net, its only full-time staff, craft a style of in-your-face journalism once pioneered by television news magazines that are now entering the mass media industry’s equivalent of middle age. News that entertained without being diluted or dumbed down has long been the domain of television. Now, the traditional press and Internet-based news publications are taking their cue from broadcast journalists: presentation is crucial. More and more, the format that sells is tabloid-style journalism, whether the actual content is traditional, hard-core news or pure, unadulterated fluff. The unintended consequence of this lowestcommon-denominator format is that it becomes difficult for the consumer to discern the hard news from the fluff. As always, the buyer must beware. Paul Lester, a professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton, anticipates a dramatic change in photojournalism
as the print media, telephone, television, and computer converge to serve households linked by fiberoptic and wireless technology. He contends that: …no matter how the tools of journalism change, fundamental ethical concerns still apply. Displaying violent, sensational images for economic reasons, violating a person’s privacy before the judicial process can function, manipulating news-editorial pictures to alter their content, stereotyping individuals into preconceived categories, and blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial messages were journalism concerns in 1895, are important topics in 1995, and will be carefully considered issues, no doubt, in 2095. (Lester)
Lester’s concerns are underscored by the fact that a photographic image can convey a visual message whose impact is far greater than the accompanying text of the news story. The publication of misleading photographs has occurred ever since photography was invented in 1839, according to Lester. “The first documented case of manipulation,” he states, “was the faked suicide of Hippolyte Bayard in 1839. The frustrated inventor made a self-portrait of his ‘drowned body’ in protest of the French government’s lack of interest in his photographic process” (Lester). There will always be a necessary and productive tension between the tabloids and the mainstream news media, between the need to generate profits and the desire to rise above profit motives. Alex Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe, believes the tabloids’ circulation declined during the 1990s because “the mainstream press is becoming trashier—that is, more like the
tabs.” (Beam) Fluctuations in the popularity of journalistic genres are inevitable. The tabloid-mainstream journalism continuum exists because it serves the consumer well. The debate over journalistic ethics and style will continue as long as people’s ethical standards and communication styles remain diverse, and few would argue for the elimination of diversity.
Notes Beam, Alex. “Tabloid Law.” The Atlantic Monthly August, 1999: 55-68. Clurman, Richard.
Beyond Malice: The
Media’s Years of Reckoning.
wick: Transaction, 1988. Lester, Paul. “Photojournalism Ethics: Timeless Issues.” Readings in Mass Communications. Ed. Michael Emery and Ted Curtis Smythe. Guilford, CT: Brown & Benchmark, 1995. --- Journalism Ethics. California State University, Fullerton, School of Communications. 12 October 1999. Oreskes, Michael. “Navigating a Minefield.” American Journalism Review November 1999. Outing, Steve. “A ‘Net Resurrection of Tabloid Journalism.” Editor & Publisher Interactive. Editor & Publisher Co. 5 December 1999. Twitchell, James.
Carnival Culture: The
Trashing of Taste in America. New York: Columbia Univ., 1992. Wolff, Michael, et al. Interview. “Lowering the Bar?”
Lehrer Productions and PBS, 1999. 5 December 1999.