Denouncing the tabloids is sanctimonious baloney

September 04, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Some of us still recall a woman named Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was the Princess Diana of her day. In my misspent youth, I worked for one of the British newspapers when the world's paparazzi were chasing Jackie and trying to catch her in some dreadful act of being human.

Back then, Rupert Murdoch had just bought the London Sun and turned it into a tabloid, and must have been doing cartwheels when Jackie tried to sneak out of a New York movie theater but found a photographer named Ron Galella waiting for her.

The movie she'd just seen was called "I Am Curious Yellow." It was a boring Scandinavian film with subtitles, but it had the saving grace of a couple of nude scenes, very mild stuff by today's standards but considered really hot back in 1970.

When Galella pointed his camera at Jackie, she did the only respectable thing a lady could do. She gave him a judo flip, leaving Galella lying there on the pavement. This reached the attention of the editors of Murdoch's Sun. Their front page headline the next day became: "Jackie Kennedy

In Sex Film

Scandal"

I remember it now because of this sad and sleazy business with the paparazzi and Princess Diana, and also because of the lessons learned back then. You couldn't find a London Sun the day of the Jackie headline. The paper had been semi-respectable when Murdoch bought it, but he turned it into TC tabloid, with ambush photography and headlines that shrieked like a soprano. In six months, its circulation went from 600,000 to more than 2 million.

So now we'll all have our heartfelt cry over poor Diana, whose pitiful death the tabloids will comb through with a mortician's devotion since they've just about run out of dead Elvis stories. Shame on them, of course. We'll decry their relentless invasions of privacy, and their paparazzi terror tactics, and for a few weeks we'll congratulate ourselves that our own sensibilities are so much more sophisticated than theirs.

All of which is sanctimonious baloney. Murdoch's Sun is a rag, but its circulation, more than 3 million now, is the highest in all of England. Somebody over there must be buying it.

Everybody sneers at our own National Enquirer, but they stick it right next to the cash registers at the food stores, where it sells like crazy. And, even if we don't buy 'em, we see the headlines, and they become part of the common gossip of our culture.

And we can thumb our noses at the smarmy TV tabloid shows, too -- but the local stations snatched up that videotape of the Lexington Mall police shooting a few weeks ago and played it endlessly, and we watched the same fatal moment until our eyes went numb.

It's what we do. Journalism has always taken an idiot's delight in catastrophe, and in celebrity, and a special glee when the two are combined. There was a time when we thought we knew where to draw the line, but then we learned otherwise -- Imagine letting all those great Kennedy scandals slip out of our hands! -- so we've been trying to make up for it ever since, sometimes because there's an important story and it gives us a chance to strut our stuff, but lots of times simply because we've come to need our audience a little too desperately.

Thus, we not only report the once unreportable but take on a new and snotty tone. Now the New York Times can report in a front page story a few years back how Bill Clinton on a trip to Oxford "returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted, and didn't get a degree."

Or we have CBS, in a feature on Newt Gingrich's mother, coaxing her to utter a choice epithet concerning Hillary Clinton, and then showing us Newt's stepfather irrigating the kitchen sink with a stream of tobacco juice.

Yes, the New York Times!

Yes, CBS!

And now we have the latest, the paparazzi chasing the former Princess of Wales at high speed, doing what the paparazzi are always doing:

Trying to catch somebody famous in the act of doing something human.

That's all it is, really. The rich and famous are different from you and me in ways that transcend money. We accuse them of having glamorous lives while ours are not. Our lives are glamorous, once removed. We take our pleasures in the leavings of famous people. The paparazzi wanted a snapshot of Diana kissing her boyfriend, which they imagined we'd find titillating. And they were right.

We're a culture of voyeurs. We lead secondhand lives now, plugged into our cable TV systems and our computers. It's safer behind our locked doors. We want drama, we watch the evening news. We want company, we have the Internet. We want sex, we turn on the Playboy channel.

We want to know what it's like to be famous and flawed, we buy the tabloids.

It's all we have left when all the real dramas are done. The Cold War's over, the country's at peace and all our military types are sitting around like firemen, waiting for a wayward match they can blow out.

Pretty pictures are all we have left and we won't give up our inalienable right to slobber over them.

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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