,Enquiring Minds': Scholarly spin to trashy tabloids

November 29, 1992|By Susan Hogan-Albach | Susan Hogan-Albach,Knight-Ridder News Service




S. Elizabeth Bird.

University of Tennessee.

248 pages. $32.95; paperback


Some scholars theorize about great literature or art. But S. Elizabeth Bird ponders supermarket tabloids.

In "For Enquiring Minds," Dr. Bird, an assistant professor of humanities and anthropology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, offers a thoughtful analysis on the appeal of these tabloids.

Leave it to an academic to find a scholarly spin to trashy tabloids, the cynic may scoff. And who else but an academic would, in the name of research, comb the pages of supermarket sleaze to read tales of World War II bombers that were abducted by aliens?

But attitudes that tabloids are trashy and sleazy are challenged by Dr. Bird as being elitist and uninformed. She writes:

"The tabloids are popular precisely for the reasons they are despised -- they are exciting yet predictable, formulaic yet titillating; they celebrate excess and ordinariness at the same time. They are nosy and fascinated with people and the way they cope, or might cope, with what life throws at them."

Using her anthropology background, Dr. Bird writes that tabloids can function in ways similar to folklore. Although the stories are pTC often offbeat, tabloids can provoke a belief among readers that anything is possible and miracles do happen.

The early chapters of the book are heady, as Dr. Bird details the historical development of tabloids. She also documents the content dif

ferences between tabloids such as the Globe, Sun and National Enquirer.

The best material comes late in the book. There's a fascinating section describing how tabloid writers obtain stories and the "ethics," such as they are, that guide that pursuit.

"Tabloid writers repeatedly absolve themselves from responsibility with their assertions of objectivity," she writes. "They do not have to believe anything, merely to find someone authoritative who does."

In another section, Dr. Bird shares letters from tabloid fans. Men write that they find tabloids full of "interesting information." Several women offer personal descriptions, as in the following: "I am 5 ft. 4, 98 lbs most grey hair green eyes a pretty nose 34B breast."

Dr. Bird says she didn't approach this study as a tabloid fan. Still, she maintains that there's a cultural lesson to be learned by understanding the appeal of tabloids to millions of people.

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