Market for tabloids unlikely to cool

This Just In...

September 03, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

I HEARD ONE of those smart TV commentators suggest there's something profoundly wrong with a public that craves and buys the supermarket tabloids that buy celebrity photographs from sleazy paparazzi, such as those who chased Diana, Princess of Wales, to her death.

I know that public. There's hardly a household in my extended family without a fresh edition of a gossip sheet in the living room or bathroom. I visit relatives and I always find tabs among the reading material. I always check them out. I read them in slow checkout lines. I buy one occasionally.

I don't know that there's anything profoundly wrong with that. In fact, it's probably quite normal. Millions of people around the world read the tabs for information about the private lives of the rich and famous. We'll weep with millions over the death of Diana, but I can't imagine this tragedy will put the tabs out of business.

The tabs are the freaky side show of journalism. They've been around for decades. In this country, at least, they grew out of a tradition of sensationalism and something that might be called "celebrity journalism." (Read Neal Gabler's biography of Walter Winchell for a fascinating history of it.)

Once confined to gossipy tabloids, that kind of journalism spread to television, news magazines and daily newspapers. I was just a cub the first time I heard a newspaper editor say, "Names is news, kid," the lesson being that no matter how trivial an event or occurrence, if a well-known person is involved, it's news.

And sometime in the past two or three decades, the rule was amended: "Names is news, kid, and if the name is in a bathing suit kissing someone's toes, even better."

In case you've been too absorbed by public television to notice, the media, in all forms, have been according greater and greater attention to celebrities -- primarily celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, sports and royalty -- because that's when the public supposedly perks up and pays attention.

And the media, anxious for an attentive public, try to give the public what it wants. Television networks and major newspapers conduct frequent market studies to find out what that is. Somewhere along the line, they determined that what we wanted, among other things, was more celebrity news.

So you can condemn the behavior of photographers and decry the way they constantly invade the privacy of various celebrities, but how far can you go with condemnation when some of the nicest, sweetest people you know subsidize the whole thing with the purchase of supermarket rags and loyalty to television shows such as "Entertainment Tonight?"

In 1981, I went to the royal wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales and immersed myself in the world of celebrity journalism. It was great fun.

While the gang at St. Paul's included "serious" correspondents from daily newspapers and wire services, they were outnumbered by writers and photographers from the tabloids and fashion magazines. As it should have been. Given a choice between categorizing the wedding of Charles and Diana as entertainment or news, most journalists I know would set it down firmly in the world of entertainment.

Here on the cusp of the 21st century, what is the point of monarchy in Great Britain, after all?

To maintain tradition? Yes. But it's there also -- perhaps primarily -- to entertain us, to keep tourists coming to the great living museums of London.

Diana was perfect for the role she accepted in 1981. I felt some sympathy for her from the start, partly because I suspected her love for the Prince of Wales was real while his interest in her grew from a public relations calculation. In my little book of memories and speculations, Diana was not courted, she was cast. She was seen as perfect for the role of Princess of Wales. That day in St. Paul's, her marriage to Charles looked all so perfect and pretty.

It was a true spectacle, the World Cup of celebrity journalism. As you might recall, we couldn't get enough of it at the time. It was not as important an event as, say, the first man on the moon or Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing. And yet, the wedding of Charles and Diana seemed to grab the world's attention with as much power. The television audience that morning was enormous and global.

Why was the whole world watching?

Partly out of a desire for a happy, harmless story.

We supposedly want happy, harmless stories. That might have been the drawing power of Charles and Diana. As simple as that.

In time, it all fell down, didn't it?

Charles and Diana went from being a harmless, happy story to the stuff of farce and soap opera.

Did those of us who followed the story walk away when the happy, harmless part ended and the farcical soap began?

I think not. I think the world's interest grew even broader and more intense. Which brings us to one of the great contradictions in life today: We want good news, positive outcomes and important information, yet we also feast on the sensational, the gloomy and the trivial. We are a complicated species.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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